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Rainer Werner Fassbinder collection vol.1

December 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant
cast: Margit Carstarsen, Hanna Shygulla, and Irm Hermann

director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

124 minutes (18) 1972
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 2/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Allegedly written during an 11-hour plane journey between Germany and Los Angeles, the script of The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant so enthused its writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder that he took his entourage and immediately returned to Germany in order to shoot the film in ten days. The result is a film that, though undeniably clever, is as close to un-watchable as any film I have ever had to review.

The film centres on a lesbian love triangle. At the top of this triangle is Petra von Kant (Margit Cartarsen), a hugely successful now single fashion designer who lives with her maid-come-assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann), a mute who is clearly so devoted to her employer that her mute passivity has tipped over into submissive, masochistic devotion. This little world is thrown off kilter when von Kant meets young, cunning and working class girl Karin (Hanna Shygulla), whom she seduces with promises of a career in modelling. Six months later and Karin returns to her husband (a black man "with a European face" evidently) leaving Petra in emotional turmoil that forces her to become a drunk ("Marlene... ten bottles of gin!"), to lash out at everyone and generally make a fool of herself. Eventually, Petra pulls herself out of her love sickness and turns her attention to her mute maid Marlene who remained by her side throughout. However, Marlene having received what she needed from Petra (systematic abuse) decides to leave too.

It is easy to see that this film was initially written as a play as the entire film is set in one room, a cluttered workshop and bedroom dominated by a wall painted with a detail from a classical painting in which a naked man or god displays himself. It is also easy to see why a lot of feminists and members of the GLBT community have taken against this film as the script was based upon a similar love triangle featuring men. Indeed, the film even begins with a dedication to "him who would become Marlene." Beyond this, the actresses all dress in ridiculous outfits and don heaps of makeup and wigs suggesting that that they are more drag queens than normal women. Furthermore, the painting of the god is conspicuous in nearly all of the film's absurdly long scenes, resulting in a cock looming over the film's action as though a constant reminder somehow defining all of these tortuous and unhealthy all-girl relationships.

Stagy, insanely claustrophobic, and packed full of thought and careful planning, The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant should be an enjoyable if challenging film but what makes it impossible to watch are the dialogue and the characters. In many introspective and relationship-obsessed art house films concerned with 'finding oneself', silence is deployed as an indicator of loneliness, estrangement, alienation and every other negative emotion and feeling that you might wish to consider. However, this film has relatively few moments of silence, instead the film is full of actresses lounging around in ridiculous outfits spouting the kind of witless, clueless, trite and stupid drivel that passes for good conversation only among the profoundly drunk and/ or stoned. On and on and on they drone, spraying the audience with enough bullshit to fertilise Africa's deserts. Even the pauses in conversation offer us no respite as the film is unbearably orchestrated with the constant sound of the maid typing letters.

The film's main currency is clearly the pain of the three women as Petra ignores Marlene for Karin, and then Karin leaves Petra, and finally Marlene rebuffs Petra's advances. But this pain is entirely synthetic. We know that the characters are in pain because the director shows us that they are in pain but everything from the horrible dialogue to the lack of incidental music to the sheer vacuity of those characters conspires to rob us of any empathy we might be tempted to feel towards them. In fact, by the end of the film, I could understand that revolutionary socialism might well have a point. What kind of sick decadent society do we live in that people can make money and become famous by writing, acting and directing such epic rubbish as this? Clearly, the only way we can rid ourselves of this impurity is by getting the Baader Meinhoff gang to round up the lot of them and force the bourgeois swine to mine coal at gunpoint until they eventually drop dead and are swept into shallow, damp, miserable paupers' graves. This film would make you want to kick your own mother down the stairs for daring to offer you a chocolate biscuit. It really is that smug and unpleasant.

The fact is that I rather suspect that Fassbinder explicitly intended to put together a film that would prompt extreme reactions. Like much modern art, I suppose the point is that I reacted at all, not that said reaction was good, bad, enjoyable or stimulating. As a result, I can see that this is a clever film but I would not recommend that anyone put themselves through it, as it really is two hours of your life you won't get back. I suggest sitting in the dark and grinding your teeth or slumping in a corner of your bathroom while idly chucking pineapple rings into the bath instead as both of these activities are likely to be more rewarding than watching The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant.

This film appears as part of the R.W. Fassbinder collection 1969-72, and it comes with two extras; black and white footage of Fassbinder directing (no doubt interesting to Fassbinder fans) and an interview with one of his contemporaries who has the irritating habit of occasionally referring to himself in the third person ("Harry decided to take the job"). Both are about 40 minutes long and are about as much fun as the film itself.

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