Rainer Werner Fassbinder's THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT is a brilliantly directed and performed psychodrama about a lesbian love triangle involving a manipulative fashion designer, her slavish assistant, and an ambitious model.
Lesbian fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) lives in a large apartment with her silent assistant and willing slave Marlene (Irm Hermann), who does most of Petra's work, and whom Petra bullies mercilessly. Petra is visited by her friend, Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), and talks about her
recent divorce from her repulsive husband, Frank, and her happy new life as a lesbian. A beautiful young friend of Sidonie's named Karin (Hanna Schygulla) arrives and tells Petra that she would like to be a fashion model. Petra is immediately attracted to her and invites her back later for dinner.
Karin arrives in a revealing dress and talks about her impoverished childhood, telling Petra that her father killed her mother, then hung himself. They get drunk, and Petra asks Karin to live with her, promising to help her career, even though Karin has admitted that she has a husband who lives in
Karin moves in, and Petra falls hopelessly in love with her and turns her into a top model but becomes insanely jealous and possessive when Karin continues to have affairs with men. They are soon fighting all the time, and when Karin receives a phone call from her husband, who's in Zurich, she
leaves to be with him, making Petra pay for her plane ticket. On her birthday, Petra desperately waits by the phone to hear from Karin. Petra's teenage daughter, Gabriele (Eva Mattes), arrives for her party, along with Petra's mother, Valerie (Gisela Fackelday), who's shocked to learn that Petra
is a lesbian. Sidonie also comes and tells Petra that she recently spoke to Karin, who's now working for a rival fashion designer, and that she may stop by the party. Petra drinks an entire bottle of gin and screams at her guests in a drunken rage, calling them whores and parasites, then passes
out. Later that night, Karin calls, but Petra tells her not to come over and tells her mother that she is finally at peace. She apologizes to Marlene for treating her so badly all the time and promises to give her more freedom. Marlene kisses her hand, then packs her bags and leaves.
Only Fassbinder could make a film that consists of two solid hours of non-stop talk, confined to a single set, with only three main characters--one of whom never speaks--and create a totally entertaining and cinematic experience. With its all-female cast and bitchy dialogue, the film is like a
twisted, lesbian version of THE WOMEN (1939), while the role-reversal story of a perverse relationship between a submissive master and dominant slave is reminiscent of THE SERVANT (1963). In one scene, Petra dictates a letter to a "Joseph Mankiewicz," and Fassbinder dedicates the film "to someone
who became another Marlene," which reportedly was a reference to one of his own lovers, but which could just as easily be meant to indicate Marlene Dietrich, since he employs the whole panoply of Hollywood glamour--wigs, makeup, outlandish costumes, and stylized lighting--to evoke Dietrich's
exotic films with Josef von Sternberg. Although the film is mostly talk, the profane dialogue is scintillating, as the manipulative Petra espouses her solipsistic, misanthropic philosophy that could also be Fassbinder's, including: "When relationships go bad, feelings turn to disgust and hatred;"
"If you understand someone, don't pity them, change them;" "People need each other but haven't found a way to live with each other;" and "Everyone is dispensable;" while Petra abuses Marlene because she claims she likes it, which may be true, since she leaves as soon as Petra promises to be nice
The entire cast is superb, willingly molding themselves to look and act like the mannequins that litter Petra's loft, with its huge, bacchanalian mural that hovers in nearly every scene. The single setting of the apartment may seem to be theatrical, but allows Fassbinder's usually minimalist
mise-en-scene to be even more tightly controlled, as he moves his actors around in formal arrangements in groups of two and three characters, creating new compositions and reframings within each shot, a la Douglas Sirk. In this regard, the birthday party sequence is particularly stunning,
especially the finale, as a drunken Petra writhes on the floor screaming obscenities, and her daughter, her mother, Sidonie, and Marlene surround her across the width of the frame, standing perfectly still, watching her for what seems like minutes, in a single, long take. The intentionally
artificial campiness of the story eventually becomes touching, as it's played out against the sound of The Platters singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "The Great Pretender." (Extreme profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1972
- Rating: NR
- Review: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT is a brilliantly directed and performed psychodrama about a lesbian love triangle involving a manipulative fashion designer, her slavish assistant, and an ambitious model. Lesbian fashion desig… (more)