Wednesday, 2 November 2011

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (GERMANY/1972/RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER)

Perhaps the most acclaimed film in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s inimitable oeuvre, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant deals with issues of obsession and jealousy. The titular Petra von Kant is an esteemed fashion designer who surrounds herself with objects of decadence in a house she shares with her reticent assistant Marlene. Still bearing the pain of her recent divorce, Petra takes out most of her frustration on Marlene, whom she frequently commands to continue sketching designs. When she is visited by a young dilettante named Karin, Petra finds herself unexpectedly smitten, and her obsession grows to sinister proportions when Karin is called away to Switzerland to reconnect with her husband.

Fassbinder spells out the film’s personal relevance from the very beginning by calling it a ‘case history’ and identifying an unnamed male as the inspiration for Marlene’s character. The all-female cast is perfectly selected, all faces that will be familiar to fans of Fassbinder. Margit Carstensen is marvellous as the lead – uncomfortably rakish in appearance, she portrays the predatory Petra with aplomb. Irm Hermann as Marlene is a ghostly presence throughout the film – in one scene, her teary pale face suddenly vanishes into a blur, underlining her comparative insignificance once Karin has entered the frame. The fashion motif in the film suggests a theme of deception, the two women dressing competitively in a bid to convince the other of her feelings. Though it carries the relics of a low-budget seventies production, Petra von Kant is fundamentally timeless and classic.



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