Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Written as part of the series hosted by everyone's favorite Nathaniel R. over at The Film Experience.


Yes, it's Pride Week! Which means it's time to watch some sad, depressed, horrible gay people abuse each other on film!

Yes, it's Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant! And what you see in the title is EXACTLY what you get. Bitter Petra von Kant and lots of tears. All while looking FABULOUS!

Sorry. I know I'm not giving this film the write-up it really deserves. It's just.... IT'S PRIDE WEEK! And this film really ruined my buzz, man. But more importantly, there is A LOT to unpack in this movie, and I feel like I need to see it at least once more before I can even begin to do that. Suffice it to say, that if you are at all a fan of actresses acting circles around each other, this a must see, featuring an absolutely unbelievable performance from Margit Carstensen in her film debut as the title character. She is fucking tremendous in this part, nailing Petra's fashion designer hauteur and performative nature as well as the bruised, wounded woman underneath. It's all the more astonishing for some of the clothes and wigs she had to wear while giving that performance.

Fassbinder and his cinematographer, the legendary Michael Ballhaus, manage to find every possible angle to film characters in the space the entire film is set in, Petra's combination bed/sitting room-cum-design studio(?), resulting in a film that is never not interesting to look at. It is really kind of incredible, but what struck me more than the lighting or the camera movements (which were at times incredibly expressive) was the blocking of characters in the space. Particularly Marlene, Petra's put-upon assistant, who is constantly in the background of scenes, ever so slightly out of focus.

And they also make wonderful use of mirrors and windows, which often cause people to be both talking to each other and not at the same time, showing how Petra views and relates to other people (i.e., only in terms of herself):

And the use of the giant painting that takes up one whole wall of the room is just stunning, too, instantly presenting the beautiful Karin, whom Petra takes as a lover/muse for a time (and who, of course, ends up leaving her. For a man) as a gift from God:

But I keep coming back to two things about Bitter Tears: Marlene and the mannequins. I was absolutely fascinated by and utterly taken with Irm Hermann's performance as the silent, black-clad Marlene, the very definition of a "long-suffering assistant" who may or may not be actually doing all (and I do mean ALL) the work of Petra's design business. It's very clearly the work of a very green actress, but in the opening credits, Fassbinder dedicates the film to her, and it's easy to see why. She is the film's heart and soul, and even if the actress appears to have none of the character's inner life, there are moments when her eyes cut right through you:

And they use her smartly, perfectly encapsulating everything about the character - just how much she suffers, and just why she does it - in just one shot:

But as expressive as that shot is, I had to go with the mannequins for the Best Shot. So much of the film is about the performative aspect of sex/sexuality - how we present ourselves, how we lie and play parts, how we hide or ignore or knowingly exaggerate one way or another - and I was drawn to how Fassbinder constantly had Petra's mannequins posed around the space as if they were mirroring the action (or in at least one case, gossiping on it). And then, near the end of the film, when Karin is long gone and Petra is in deep, DEEP despair, her former bedroom now completely empty but for the wall painting, the shag carpeting, and a phone that Petra desperately waits for Karin to call her on, we see this:

Petra (or Marlene, who knows?) has staged her mannequins in bed, two having sex and one watching. It's a bit ambiguous: Are the two in bed meant to represent Petra and Karin, with the watcher being Marlene? Or society? Or are the two in bed Karin and a random lover, with Petra watching? Either way, what matters is that this is all Petra and Karin ever were - they weren't REAL when they were together. Petra didn't want to hear truth from Karin (or perhaps from her ex-husband), she wanted what she wanted to hear. Karin knew this, and it's part of why she got bored and part of why she left. Petra's feelings towards Karin weren't love, but obsession. She was reaching for something we want to be easily definable but in reality is anything but. She was going through the motions, trying to find something to fill a void, and desperately trying to make it fit. You can pose yourself however you like, but it's not love unless you're real.


  1. "showing how Petra views and relates to other people (i.e., only in terms of herself)"

    LOVE. I was thinking about that but couldn't quite put it into words.

    great choice in shot(s). i nearly went with your runner up... but wanted something just a smidge later in the movie once it really started cooking

    1. Thanks! I don't blame you for that. This was definitely a slow burn - I was actually worried that I wasn't going to like it early on because it felt a bit stiff and cold. But those long takes really draw you into the world and the characters. It sneaks up on you.