Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
For many prominent gay artists, George Cukor’s Hollywood classic The Women (1939) has proved an irresistible model for cinematic storytelling: a group of women stuck together in a house, their destinies nominally defined and dominated by off-screen males, but living day to day through the melodramatic intensity of their same-sex exchanges.
This tale can be told in a bitchy, misogynistic way or, the contrary, used as the basis for queer identification: François Ozon’s 8 Femmes (2002) provides one fine example. As for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he loved The Women so much he produced it both on stage and for television.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – cheekily subtitled “a case history” – is Fassbinder’s explicitly lesbian variation on the model provided by The Women. Preserving and indeed exaggerating the claustrophobic theatricality of his own original play, Fassbinder offers a parade of chic women who visit Petra (Margit Carstensen), a fashion designer, and her mute and ever-obedient servant, Marlene (Irm Hermann). Psychological domination and expert game playing are Petra’s forte – she gives good phone – and, in her lair, all transactions are a dance in and around her bed.
Meanwhile, the seethingly jealous Marlene types and sketches forever in the background. Petra, in her interactions with Marlene, carefully alternates gestures of flirtation (such as dancing) with demonstrations of authority (“I need an orange juice!”) – the age-old formula for trapping someone in an emotional double bind, something at which Fassbinder (in both his professional and personal life) appears to have been quite a master.
The possibilities for camp humour are many – as in the ironically contrapuntal use of old hits by The Platters and The Walker Brothers – but Fassbinder plays it cool. I have seen several stage productions of Bitter Tears down the years, and it is fascinating to realise how completely cinematically Fassbinder renders his own material, even as the text of the play is scrupulously respected.
Michael Balhaus’s cinematography, in concert with Fassbinder’s mise en scène, keeps it inventive, with constantly changing perspectives, reframings, foreground/background switches, and lighting effects. Not to mention the central role played by an enormous reproduction of Nicolas Poussin’s 1629 painting “Midas and the Bacchus” as a prominent wallpaper mural in the set.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a compelling mixture of ironic distance and rapt involvement – a combination few Fassbinder imitators can genuinely reproduce. It builds to a simple but valuable life lesson for anyone embroiled in emotionally sadomasochistic relations – a ledger which basically includes, in Fassbinder’s acidic view of society, everyone. To wit: the weaker in any situation has one ultimate, devastating weapon: quite simply, the power to walk away.
© Adrian Martin April 2003 / January 2015