Berlinale 2022 review: François Ozon’s ‘Peter von Kant’ plays out as an ambitious but flat homage to Fassbinder [Grade C-]￼
It’s been 50 years since Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant premiered at Berlinale and to mark this anniversary, prolific French filmmaker François Ozon offers the audience of that very same festival his own rendition of the original film, under the subtitle ‘loosely based’ and a shift in the protagonist’s gender. By substituting Petra with Peter, a fashion designer with a filmmaker, and Bremen with Cologne, Ozon gestures towards the universality of the story: one of passionate love and its lacerations, all embalmed by artistic neuroses. Conceptually, such a move makes sense, especially since the queer codes of the original are kept intact. However, endowing universality with self-explanatory value conceals the threat of neglecting the essence of the story in the first place. Artistic qualities are not transmissible from an original to a remake, as film is far from a mechanical reproduction even if its origins have suggested so.
Ozon’s filmography is rich in adaptations, and in 2000 he even based his film Water Drops on Burning Rocks on a play by Fassbinder. Two decades later, his desire to pay homage is still there and while this continuity is itself laudable, a viewer cannot help but demand a lot from Peter von Kant, especially if they have reveled in the authoritative magnitude of leading lady Margit Carstensen as Petra. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant remains one of the finest examples of the Sirkean spirit of melodrama which permeates Fassbinder’s body of work and the unspoken love triangle between an artist, their fickle lover, and their silent servant is nothing short of a tour de force in the confines of a lavish, but cunningly claustrophobic apartment.
Ozon prefers to stay closer to what he knows best – filmmaking – and turns Peter (a dedicated Denis Ménochet) into a famous director, therefore, the mise-en-scene loses much of its authentic flair to generic yet expansive set pieces. While the film equipment is bound to a badly lit side room, what is memorable from the decor is a bed on a pedestal, and a few enormous paintings of Saint Sebastian, which annihilate the need for subtext.
Yet, if Peter von Kant was all out there, as the saint’s pierced body is, that would have made it into a far more invigorating watch. Manuel Dacosse who has also built the eccentric visuals in the works of filmmakers such as Fabrice du Welz, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, as well as the explosive giallo duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, here offers a watered-down version of what he’s capable of. Not only does the camerawork lack a determination to make these protagonists face their self-imposed prison, but the magnetic sway as their bodies glide from room to room is lost very early on in favor of a bland stasis.
Ménochet is electric and fragile at the same time, and while his endeavors to channel the tragic genius of Rainer Werner Fassibinder himself are largely successful when it comes to gestures, not to mention physique and garments, he himself cannot compensate for the lack of genuine emotion, the molding of which gives melodrama its heart and soul. Casting the magnetic Isabelle Adjani as an actress past her prime speaks of Ozon’s good intention but her character’s emotional depth is not developed enough in the script itself, in order to actually justify her presence as more than a wish-fulfillment on the director’s side. The same goes for Hanna Schygulla who appears as Peter’s mother at the very end, even if the icon of the New German Cinema is the living material link between Fassbinder’s 1972 film and Peter von Kant, the lack of substance behind Ozon’s aspiration shines through.
Yes, the focus on a filmmaker protagonist provides the base for a self-reflexive reading; yes, the rendering of Petra into Peter evokes the painful relationship between Fassbinder himself and his lover Günther Kaufmann to resurface, thus giving the film a new angle; and most of all, yes, the dialogue is almost identical to the one from 1972. But what’s more important is that the phrases acquire different meanings and suffer from diminished resonance. If Peter von Kant promises its audience a feast of power exchanges, humiliation, and neuroses, all we end up with are the leftovers of a romance lived and mourned a long, long time ago.
This review is from the 2022 Berlin Film Festival.