Monday, October 25, 2010

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

This lovely experience in meticulously constructed claustrophobia is my latest foray into the Fassbinder oeuvre. Though Mr. Fassbinder asserts his presence through exquisite framing and staging, within the camera's view, there is nary a man to be seen. In the Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, the titular character has set herself apart from men, and for the most part, from humanity, building a confining cave of longings and tensions.

Based on Fassbinder's own play, the action never leaves Petra's apartment. The simplicity of this set up allows for extensive dialogue, which, truthfully went on at enough of a length that I found myself lost in it once in a while. Despite her propensity towards monologuing, Petra owns the screen. Watching this movie, I felt like a rubbernecker at a traffic accident. Actually, because of the claustrophobic framing, I sort of felt like I was sharing a cell with a traffic victim who was quickly losing their grip on reality. Despite its sometimes being cumbersome and wordy, this film really is fascinating, and I wish I had more stamina for it--the type of situation that forces me to ponder whether cultural critics are accurate. Is the Internet truly destroying my powers of concentration? I ruminate on this as I watch the movie on my laptop, using Netflix Instant.***

Petra is a fashion designer who lives with her taciturn assistant, the eternally silent Marlene. At our point of entry to her hermetic existence, Petra has recently parted ways with her husband after becoming incredibly successful in her field. (Though if her own s & m inspired, prison garb wardrobe is an example of her design, I'm tempted to dismiss this purported success as fantasy). This film is about many different things, but at its heart, it is a film about relationships, and the inescapable power dynamics by which they are defined. Despite the physical presence of men in this movie, masculine power haunts the periphery of the action and dialogue. Note the looming painting that occupies nearly every frame.

Essentially, Petra's infatuation with a newcomer in her life, Karin, is the basis for this one-room saga. Karin quickly sees an opportunity to exploit Petra, who makes her feelings immediately transparent. Sensing Petra's attraction, Karin worms her way into the house, riding on Petra's fame to achieve exposure as a model. In one long conversational scene, Petra stalks Karin about the room like a courting bird, while Karin coyly evades her. The next scene shows them sharing a bed, the apathetic Karin resisting Petra's advances. My hypothesis through viewing this film is that Petra's homosexuality results from her search for the masculine control that only possession can provide. Of course this backfires terribly, as Karin ends up holding all of the cards, wielding a stereotypically feminine kind of passive, emotional manipulation, which opposes Petra's more direct methods of control.

Petra's ostentatious attitude is that of a woman on a stage, and her appearance is subject to drastic change from scene to scene. In the beginning she is gaunt, skeletal and sallow, a mirror of the mannequins and dolls that populate her apartment. She is totally vocal, while her comrade, Marlene, is utterly wordless. Marlene and Petra represent a sort of sado-masochistic, power/submissive, even feminine/masculine dichotomy, though it has been postulated that they are meant to represent two halves of one whole person. Regardless of how specific the metaphor is, the camerawork often emphasizes their allegiance together in the frame. In one really beautiful shot, the camera pans from its shallow focus on Petra to a deep focus on Marlene, and then moves back to Petra in one fluid movement. Even when men are absent, women will find a way to perpetuate the power plays that have come to be central to heterosexual relationships, because humanity inevitably constructs meaning through dichotomies. (Though this is probably a patriarchal construction as well.) More to the point, the two women are always together, and Marlene seems to be Petra's silent Other. Petra is all talk and surface, while Marlene is so internal she barely participates in life.

When Petra Von Kant was finished, I was left with the sense that I had barely scraped the surface of all of Fassbinder's ideas, and my own. Luckily the blogger's medium is one that allows us to revisit whatever we like, so I feel no guilt about leaving some ends hanging lose here.

*** Incidentally, I was too lazy to screen capture this movie myself. Though it definitely would have been possible, my slow internet connection, and Netflix's incessant rebuffering discouraged me from doing so. The photos hyperlink to their sources. Most are from Ferdy On Films

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