Not exactly the most comfortable film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career, the Sapphic haute couture bitchfest The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (a major influence on Francois Ozon’s 8 femmes) is also his most oft-quoted. And it’s easy to see why, what with rhythmic rants like: “He stank like a man. The way men stink. What had once had its charms now turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes.” Margit Carstensen stars as the film’s eponymous fashion designer, a divorced whiner who falls hopelessly and obsessively in love with one of her models, Karin (Hanna Schygulla). Fassbinder uses the claustrophobic geometry of the film (for two hours, his grueling camera never leaves Petra’s hermetic quarters) to strangle the film’s women and to distance them physically and emotionally from each other, cataloging the various force du jours their individual hysterias provoke. Having divorced some time ago the husband she no longer loved, Carsensen’s bored fashionista now grapples with the implications of her love for women. She’s drawn to Karin not only for her beauty but for the subservience the up-and-coming ingénue seems to promise her. But in Karin’s emotional turnaround in the film’s nihilistic last act, Fassbinder envisions a proletarian uprising against an oppressive bourgeois. Irm Hermann stars as Petra’s perpetually silent servant girl, who spends much of the film typing in a corner for her master and observing her eventual downfall. And in Petra’s relationship with her daughter, a naïve little baby dyke fresh out of boarding school, Fassbinder allows Petra to declare and define her notions of maternal power and female control. The film is a fascinating but strange document of the trickle-down effects of power and an even stranger observation of the way women treat and sometimes enslave each other, but Fassbinber’s galvanizing aesthetic approach to the material, however fitting, is so unbearably oppressive that it borders on the pathological. For his audience, the only points of departure are the high-camp exchanges between the film’s actresses.
- New Yorker Films
- 124 min
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder
- Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Eva Mattes, Gisela Fackeldey, Irm Hermann
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