PETER VON KANT is too piddly to get mad at. One can understand the temptation in turning the story of Petra von Kant into a story about Fassbinder. Many of his colleagues have spoken of how when Fassbinder wrote Petra, he was working through some of his feelings on past relationships, particularly that with El Hadi Ben Salem. So Ozon (mis) casts the beary and huggable Denis Menochét as filmmaker Peter von Kant, a genius filmmaker, shit of a person, with a penchant for leather jackets and sniffing coke for breakfast. Khalil Ben Gharbia plays what was formerly the Hannah Schygulla part, here named Amir Ben Salem, after two of Fassbinder’s exes, and so on.
This all brings to mind that infamous Stanley Kauffmann article, ‘Homosexual Drama and Its Diguises’ where, without naming them, he pretty much outed Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Edward Albee, claiming their plays were homosexual relationships masquerading as heterosexual ones; as if Ozon thought he now could make the ‘true’ film that Fassbinder couldn’t. Though surely Ozon, as the Fassbinder fan he is, has seen FOX AND HIS FRIENDS and knows better? Whatever the cause, the film has a soupçon of internalised homophobia about it a well as an implied evocation of the superiority of the present over the past: the film is set in the same year THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT was made.
At the beginning of the film Peter is writing a letter to Romy Schneider about possibly starring in a film cannily like Fassbinder’s THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Ozon knows his divas and his camp and the character that was Marlene in PETRA, so potent as embodied by Irm Herrman, is now Karl (Stephan Crepon) and sadly reduced to that. For me the only pleasure in PETER VON KANT is Isabelle Adjani’s marvellous turn as Sidonie, movie star and chanteuse, with more a whiff of Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD about her. Every gesture, every tilt of the head is mannered, false and yet also true to the character and very entertaining. She looks beautiful too, always a thrill in itself with movie stars. Hannah Schygulla, who here appears as Peter’s mother, has a different kind of beauty. Unlike Adjani’s she’s let herself age naturally, and brings an earthiness and tenderness to the part that is perhaps the only moment the film succeeds at depth.
As to the rest, the film uses a similar style of framings, mirros, and camera moves over an interior set to Petra’s. It’s over half an hour shorter than Fassbinder’s and much more lightweight. It’s busier too, where Fassbinder used one painting, precisely and meaningfully, Ozon uses four (the Pousin Midas and Bacchus used by Fassbinder and three St. Sebastians: Rubens’, Caraccciolo’s and Toscan’s) but much less purposefully. The dummies here seem merely decorative, a nod to the original. The film is full of allusions to other works, those of Fassbinder of course, and those which the extra textually of the film stars themselves bring, but also visually – Warhol, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS — aurally — the diva-esque dimension of French chanson — and so on. Why can’t one make different versions of a work like they do in the theatre, asks Ozon? And indeed there is no set rule about it. Certainly Fassbinder and Haynes succeed with their reworkings of ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. But Ozon doesn’t. I like Ozon’s films very much. They’re often fascinating formal exercises and often fun, but they never quite convince. Peter von Kant is a measure of how frivolous and lightweight a filmmaker Ozon is compared to the greats.