Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

Though I prefer Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the only other Fassbinder film I have seen, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant more greatly convinces me of Fassbinder’s talent as a filmmaker. It might possibly be the most visually ravishing of all films set for the most part in a single room. The bleak, somber tone achieved through many awkward conversational pauses, moments of anguish, and an absence of all but ironic music, the meticulous camera movements and frequent manipulations of the depth of focus that place the female characters in varying dramatic proximities to each other made me think it Fassbinder’s equivalent to Bergman’s Cries and Whispers of the same year. Its adeptness at telling its story about a lesbian fashion designer trying to transcend established norms and gain possession over an aspiring model seems to me more skilled than the melodramatic tale of love between an elderly widow and a young Arab. And yet The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is so predictably defeatist, Petra’s fate is locked from the outset, and as Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his essay about the film, the enormous reproduction of Poussin’s Midas and Baccus that dominates a great quantity of the compositions serves from the beginning as a patriarchal rebuke to von Kant’s misguided attempts at liberation, at the same time the mannequins are ever-looming symbols of inhumanity and the absence of intimacy in Petra’s attempted conquest of Karin. The film is bitter to the core, reveling in Petra’s sadness and frustration only at the end to deny her even her servant Marlene, who relinquishes her docility only in the last minute when her mistress needs her most.

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