Peter von Kant’s tears are slightly warmer than Petra’s were 50 years ago, but François Ozon’s homage to his idol Rainer Werner Fassbinder shows that we can all still get fooled by love.
If one were in any doubt as to the height of the podium on which French director François Ozon places the chaotically talented Rainer Werner Fassbinder, then this should settle things once and for all.
Ozon has adapted Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and his version brings some delicate alterations in tone 50 years on from the original – but to describe this as a ‘loose’ adaptation would be far from the mark.
The protagonist in Ozon’s version (which is also set in 1972) is Peter von Kant (Denis Ménochet), an acclaimed film maker and a clear substitute for Fassbinder, sharing as he does his affinity for alcohol, drugs, and leather waistcoats. Introduced by his friend Sidonie (a diva-esque Isabelle Adjani) to her young companion Amir (Khalil Gharbia), Peter becomes instantly infatuated with the young man and sets about incorporating him into both his films and his bed. But when inevitable fractures in the relationship – caused by age, ambition, and desire – begin to take hold, Peter’s fragile emotional state collapses viciously. Of course mum is there to wipe away the tears, and who else would Ozon choose for this role than Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla.
Gender switches aside, Peter von Kant is quite a faithful adaptation of the original story, albeit one in which Ozon takes the opportunity to reinforce his Fassbinder fascination, with both musical and visual homages to Fassbinder’s posthumously released film Querelle lurking.
Obsessive ambition, self-centered pursuit of artistic goals at any cost, the need to be desired and loved – these conflicting drivers converge in both films, and it turns out that it matters little whether the protagonists are male or female – a character such as Peter/Petra does not have the emotional strength to hold everything together. Peter’s bulking frame tends to moderate the cold, brittleness of his female parallel, and his assistant Karl (Stefan Crépon) is less sinister than Petra’s Marlene, but it is surely obvious by now that the real issue is that it is almost impossible to talk about Peter von Kant without comparing it to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Perhaps this is exactly what François Ozon wanted, but at what cost?
If such a renowned film is to be adapted 50 years on, then should it not be with the purpose of making some kind of contemporary statement, or at least an attempt at investigation into, how things are different (or not) as we view the story now? With Ozon setting this in 1972, mirroring Petra’s set design, the claustrophobia of the apartment, and the mute subservience of the assistant Karl, Ozon has sadly brought little new to the chic smoked glass-topped table.
But there is one thing to be grateful for, and that is Denis Ménochet. Peter is a difficult character to like, intolerant and emotionally abusive – and we never see him actually at work being excellent at something. But for all the bluster and bawling, Ménochet succeeds in having us believe that he really did think that he loved Amir and that the feeling was, for a time, reciprocated. One could almost feel sorry for him. For a second or two.