François Ozon’s Peter von Kant is both a remake and a restoration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. A remake because it takes exactly the same story and retells it in pretty much the same way, except with the genders flipped. A restoration because it peels away a layer of obfuscation added by Fassbinder to the original, to reveal where he was really coming from.
In the 1972 original, Petra (Margit Carstensen) was a dreadfully self-centred designer waited on hand and foot by an entirely silent servant (Irm Hermann). One day Petra is introduced to a pretty young thing called Karin (Hanna Schygulla) and instantly totally loses her head to her. As Petra in vain tries to get Karin to love her the way she loves Karin, the original master/servant relationship is completely upended. Petra has wealth, power and prestige and Karin has almost nothing. But that one card she does have she plays to devastating effect.
Fifty years on designer Petra has become director Peter (Denis Ménochet) and Karin has become would-be actor Amir Ben Salem (Khalil Ben Gharbia) but the power dynamic remains exactly the same, Amir transforming in the change of a scene and a “nine months later” on-screen notice from the handsome but shy young man to a cruel and callous star who laughs in the face of Peter’s attempts to get him to say “I love you”. The silent Marlene, meanwhile, has become the equally silent Karl, who looks on and whose face registers traces of emotion as the war rages between the two other men.
The story was Fassbinder’s own. He fell in love with a young man called El Hedi Ben Salem (close enough) and ruined himself on the rocks of that relationship while his secretary, Irm Hermann, looked on. Bizarrely, Hermann was in life Fassbinder’s badly treated factotum – as Marlene she was playing a barely fictionalised version of herself.
Ozon flashes up an image of Fassbinder while the opening credits are rolling and then introduces us to fleshy, stubbly, moustachioed Denis Ménochet as Peter. The resemblance is obvious and deliberate. This is Fassbinder’s story.
Fascinating, as far as it goes, though it didn’t take much imagination to guess that the original film might have been autobiographical to a greater or lesser extent. Leading to the question: what’s the point?
An exercise in pastiche seems to be the answer, which isn’t quite enough if you’ve seen the original film recently (which I had), though you could just watch Ozon’s rejig for the acting, which is phenomenally good. Ménochet is excellent in everything he’s in and plays the wounded bear incredibly well. Ben Gharbia is a commanding presence, Stefan Crepon is silently effective as the slender, Gromit-like servant Karl. And here’s Isabelle Adjani, in one of the few roles where the gender hasn’t been flipped, as Sidonie, the friend of Peter who first makes the fateful introduction, and whose self-love and lack of self-knowledge threaten to eclipse even Peter’s. Beneath all the cosmetic work – she’s 67! – there is still a great actress.
In the original film, this lack of self-knowledge seemed, in part, to be what Fassbinder was tilting at, when not flagellating himself, as part of his ongoing criticism of modern Germany’s failure to examine its Nazi past. This, all these decades later, now makes no sense as a concern and Ozon doesn’t go there.
Like the original, it’s all set in a couple of rooms in the von Kant apartment and Ozon holds back on too-obvious aping of Fassbinder’s camera, which worked hard to avoid the charge that the audience were being served up a filmed play. Ozon is happier to move unobtrusively around his actors, leaving them to do the work.
As a final flourish he introduces Hanna Schygulla, who played love-object Karin in the original film and is now Peter’s mother. A nice touch and another one for film historians to footnote. The power of this version lies in its compare-and-contrast aspect.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022