Friday, March 29, 2013

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Petra and Karin.

My second Fassbinder film, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" has caught me off-guard on how insightful its screenplay really is in terms of examining the painful nuances of love. Mounted by Fassbinder as something akin to a theatrical play (it was, after all, made to be one), the film chronicles, in an almost real-time fashion, the emotional complexities of a certain Petra von Kant (played by Margit Carstensen with an otherworldly sense of controlled lunacy), a renowned yet romantically jaded fashion designer who, after an unsuccessful marriage with a certain Frank, has decided to lead a loveless life. That is, until she meets an aspiring fashion model named Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a young woman who will simultaneously prove to be the best and worst thing to ever come to her life. 
Although Karin states that she indeed likes Petra, she can never say that she loves her with a straight face and with a full, unhindered conviction. Is she only drawn to Petra because of her fame and because of her money? Is she just fascinated by Petra's manipulative character? Or is it something more humanly unexplainable? Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a most emotionally articulate auteur in the tradition of John Cassavetes, seems unsure himself, but so are the characters. After all, the film's focus is not on the spark that has ignited such a romance but on the tearful aftermath of such a heavily conditional affair. 
Set entirely in a small but evidently lush apartment space, the film then explores, using long shots, deep focus and slow tracking shots, Petra's metamorphosis from a relatively sane yet possessive woman to a terribly lovesick sap who's just inches away from utter romantic lunacy. Fassbinder, through his powerfully amoral and emotionally insular screenplay (which he has written while he's on a 12-hour flight from Berlin to Los Angeles), has created an aura of detachment between the characters that populate the film and the audience, which makes for a more compelling viewing as we ourselves question the very reason as to why we stay on to watch such a cold, manipulative woman cry her hearts out for 2 hours. The answer for that, ironically enough, resides in the film's most crucial character bar Petra von Kant herself: Marlene (Irm Hermann), Petra's secretary and co-designer who sees in Petra an untamed dominatrix who she is more than willing to masochistically submit to. 
In a way, because of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's deceptively simple scenario and intelligent but admittedly self-destructive ruminations on love, we, the audience, were able to channel Marlene's unconditional subservience to Petra, and we are fascinated by it. But at the same time, we (or I am, at least) are also equally fascinated by our inclination to watch the Petra character unravel in front of our very eyes. 
Sure, we are abhorred by Petra's whiskey-a-minute behavior, telephone-centric existence and her constant bossiness towards Marlene the silent slave, but we just can't look away. Thanks to Fassbinder's subtle yet incisive portrayal of a lovesick woman who, at the same time, is also quite sick of love, our inclination and affinity to witness the film's developments and emotional devolution transcends that of a typical film viewer. Instead, we are drawn into Fassbinder's simplistic approach that's as melancholic as it is full of sound and fury simply because it speaks some truth. 
For a film that is composed mainly of painfully long shots and is set entirely in one location, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" may prove to be a very challenging piece of work to sit through. But honestly speaking, I never felt the 2-hour running time simply because I was very engrossed on anticipating how Petra may ultimately turn out to be. Sure, she is such an alienating character in the fashion of all those 'rich and ruthless' film characters out there, but deep inside, her emotionally devastated heart is a core that we can all identify with. Love is a real bitch, you know, and Fassbinder (and each and every one of us) knows that. A quote from him: "Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other." 
There was a theory on a great IMDb discussion thread that I have read which states that Petra and Marlene, figuratively and essentially, are one and the same, and that (SPOILERS) Marlene leaving Petra in the end is the symbol of their emotional deliverance, and is therefore adhered to the 'Stoicist' philosophical school of thought ("to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy"); an existential framework which is also specifically applicable in the context of the interpersonal relationship between Petra the master and Marlene the mastered (to accept even slaves and those that are considered inferior as "equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature"). Although a film that is admittedly not everyone's cup of tea, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" is a very rewarding piece of cinema. It may not give out the most concise feelings and the most reassuring of answers, but hell, isn't that what great films are all about?

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