[Film Review] The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant poster

English Title: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Original Title: Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant
Year: 1972
Country: West Germany
Language: German
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Margit Carstensen
Hanna Schygulla
Irm Hermann
Katrin Schaake
Eva Mattes
Gisela Fackeldey
Rating: 7.1/10

A Berlin Golden Bear contender in 1972, this film precisely exemplifies the expedient film-making mode of the ever-so-prolific Fassbinder, allegedly its script was written during a trans-Atlantic 12-hour flight, and shot in ten days with an all-female cast from his troupe, six characters altogether, maximally exploits its single location, the bedroom of our protagonist, Petra von Kant (Carstensen), a successful fashion designer in Bremen, to concentrate extremely on a succession of episode mapping out her emotional slough.

To visually offset the movie’s inbred austerity, Fassbinder has reproduced the painting of MIDAS AND BACCUS from the leading classic French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin, to occupy entirely one side of the wall in Petra’s bedroom, which also underlines our early pursuit of the destructive conjoined twins: money and pleasure.

Other characters are Marlene (Hermann, performing with heightened and subservient silence), Petra’s assistant, whom she treats in a sadistic fashion which will eventually apply itself as a pleasantly unconventional ending; Karin (Schygulla), a young model whom Petra nurtures her love with but eventually deserts her; then in lesser importance, there are her lady friend Sidonie (Schaake), her mother Gabriele (Mattes) and her teenage daughter Valerie (Fackeldey).

Extensively utilizing single camera shot and deep focus, constantly alters the compositions to strive for a feeling of fluidity, purposefully lavishing Petra and Karin with kitschy wardrobe and wig selections (Petra is firstly introduced in her makeup-free plainness, and it is the cosmetics-applying process brings about her allure), and timely playing oldies from The Platters and The Walker Brother, an ending piece of UN DÌ, FELICE, ETEREA from Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA, Fassbinder is indeed well versed in lubricating the film’s rigid structure of a theatrical nature, he wrote it as a play first, and let the vagaries of a woman’s sentiments run the show.

In the beginning, Petra has just recovered from a failed marriage, and is spurned by the cheap sympathy from Sidonie’s condolence and rebuffs the latter’s advice of a more pragmatical view on love and marriage, aka. humility, she touts her implacable resolution that “love must be beautiful”, she simply cannot endure lies. But in her tentative move to woo Karin, she gracefully throws concept of humility to impress a lesser sophisticated mind, and when she is hurt by Karin’s blunt frankness (a black man with a huge cock), she pleads her to lie to her, a sardonic betrayal of her pride and principles. The subsequent fits of fickleness and servitude barely can erase a feeling of fatigue born out of the treacly theatrics and broad-stroke tediousness, a straightforward nervous breakdown should have arrived sooner than later.

Speaking of performances, Carstersen’s soliloquy-prone grandstanding never totally transcend into something ravishing to behold, maybe because Petra is a far cry from a character we can easily project sympathy onto, a deeply-flawed diva’s sadomasochistic narcissism is psychologically overbearing for schadenfreude. Schygulla, on the contrary, retains something brutally honest in Karin, cast a distinguished shadow of self-awareness against Petra’s maudlin temperament; and Hermann conveys Marlene, a permanent on-looker in the maelstrom of melodrama, with expressionless glare and stare, she robotically types, eavesdrops, serves until dissolves into a subconscious existence simmering with suppressed orgasm, only until Petra finishes with that, Fassbinder’s intricately personal and rawly experimental psycho-drama dares to close its curtain.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant 1972

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