I hadn’t seen THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT for forty years and I remember finding it stagey and alienating then. This weekend I found it so great I saw it twice, and it will probably take me a long time to think through its complexities.
The beauty of it is immediate. It’s filmed by Michael Ballhaus, in one set, in mainly autumnal colours with a painting of Poussin’s MIDAS AND BACCHUS often dominating the background and symbolically commenting on the characters’ situation, just as the dressmaker’s dummies that are carefully arranged in the background, often through room partitions and book-cases in clearly Sirkian frames-within-frames or the symbolic use of dolls or even the design of that dress Marlene is undertaking on Petra’s behalf.. The mise-en-scène is a marvel of slithering long-takes landing with precision on extraordinary compositions, and often more than one within a shot. The dialogue is constant, as in a play, but with this type of mise-en-scène bears less of the weight of communicating meaning and feeling. It’s a film that makes one re-think or think some more or think in better and more complicated ways about the theatrical in film (which I know some of you have already done so).
There are only six characters in the film; Petra von Kant (Marget Cartensen), a celebrated dress designer, once widowed, currently divorcing her second husband; Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), he best friend; her mother (Gisela Fackelday); her daughter (Eva Mattes); her secretary Marlene (the great Irm Herrmann) who we never hear throughout the film but is always in the background; her presence always felt, even when it’s only through us hearing her typing. She sees everything, hears everything, does all the work, is clearly totally besotted with Petra and it is more than suggested that she gets off on Petra treating her abominably; and finally Karin, a married woman, like Marlene of a lower class, with whom Petra will fall madly in love, losing all her bearings and upturning her life.
The film’s five acts go with five different wigs as Petra tries on different identities, philosophises about gender and power and exploitation in different ways until love floors her. Fassbinder’s view of relationships is that it’s all power games with different partners having different degrees of power, in which gender, money and class figure, but is mainly on how much they’re in love; and that love itself is something that leads to a total loss of control and complete vulnerability. It’s a hyper-romantic view of love and a super-cynical view of relationships. It did make me wonder how lesbians – who flocked to this film in the 70s; there was a real dearth of representation – responded to this film then. And perhaps some of you remember and will tell me.
Aside from the theatrical, the film, like with MERCHANTS OF THE FOUR SEASONS makes me think about the representation of period, but for almost different reasons. The film is clearly set in contemporary times (all the references to air travel) but it looks as if it was set in the late twenties or thirties, perhaps because of the costumes and hairdos, and because they bear so much more weight of signification since the action all takes place indoors. It again seems to be set in a no-time that bears the weight of history (the costumes, the painting), in this case with a particular accent on the patriarchal (the use of dolls, the constant dressing) and the relationships women have had to enact within that order. A truly great film. Now that I’ve seen it twice, I want to see it again.