celluloid relapse: the bitter tears of petra von kant
John Waters, spokesman-in-chief for housewives, suburban boredom and Baltimore itself, is well known to us all as the cultural monarch of the weird and perfectly wonderful. Infinitely notorious, a large portion of his oeuvre remains inaccessible to our more ‘conscientious’ citizens but for those among us who apparently remain wanting as far as a conscience is concerned, his work is effortlessly likeable and endlessly entertaining.
Being a successful cine-stalker and immeasurably keen to explore the works of those who have inspired the directors I love, I have additional cause to thank the old chap profusely. Not only has he provided me with endless entertainment, he is now indirectly responsible for introducing me to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and all the splendour of New German Cinema. Newly exposed and finding myself thus seized by an imperative to osmotically absorb as much of his immediately accessible work as possible, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Berlin:Alexanderplatz (1980) and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) were watched in a rapid procession. All were wonderful, but for these purposes and in spite of the difficulty of choosing between the three, the latter only can here be addressed. I now understand why most parents insist upon the impossibility of choosing a favourite child; all were superb and uniquely so.
Filmed mainly in a single room presided over by a blow-up of Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus with no glimpse of the outside world, this feature is, as suggested by its title, one almost solely focused upon the capricious Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) and the many, bitter tears she somehow suppresses. Ensconced in her Schlafzimmer microcosm with her personal secretary Marlene (Irm Hermann) in constant company, she is rude, condescending and understandably a little bored. She smashes things, abuses Marlene and treats guests abhorrently but these perverse diversions largely stop with the arrival of Karin (Hanna Schygulla) who moves in as her lover. This is however a temporary respite as with Karin’s inevitable departure, our anti-heroine’s foul disposition returns with a remarkable velocity. Seldom throughout the narrative is she truly happy; an acerbic and malcontent individual, this is her tale of unhappiness in the midst of success, opulence and opportunity.
Just as is featured in the works of Mr Waters, the suggestion of a confined and very personal suburban apocalypse is of supreme importance. The very closeness of the room with its busy walls, fluffy carpet and complete lack of privacy stifles characters and audience alike, for we too feel inexplicably snared for the entirety of its duration. What is more, the framing of the entire film renders this preoccupation so much more astute, as seldom is anyone the main focus of a shot; their obscuration with furniture, doorways and others causes them to be swallowed whole by surroundings so reminiscent of a boa constrictor. Petra is no Francine Fishpaw or Beverly Sutphin but she nevertheless falls prey to the same omnipresent force. Suburbia and insignificance are the real enemies here and their festering power is something that Fassbinder and Waters alike are so talented at conveying.
Aesthetically, this film is one to watch and, I am informed, is one high up on the list of priorities of fashion students everywhere. Petra herself is a designer and necessity demands that her clothes and surroundings be visually appealing. The disguises she wears are, to be succinct, works of art. It is true that from time to time she visibly finds walking difficult but she looks so fabulous doing so that it ceases to be a concern. Ever present upon her head is a wig from what seems to be a vast collection and we are only privy to the sight of her real hair on the rarest of occasions. She thus hides herself completely from her fellow characters and from us in her self-created bubble of seductive ennui, her attire a band-aid solution to the misery she feels within. This strong aesthetic current that bears the film for its entirety is certainly worth watching solely for its own merit. Even if one were one to view it on mute, it would still be of an impeccable standard on this distinction alone.
This particular foray into cinematic stalking has been resoundingly successful and unlike its illegal counterparts, has proven itself capable of much joy to all involved. Mr Waters, you have given us all divine, endless entertainment, controversy and now this chance introduction. It is not the aforementioned features that independently made The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant an excellent film but their cohesion and above all, the capacity of the film as a whole to remain with its audience long after its conclusion. Just like a fine wine, time especially improves this piece, rendering Petra’s saga a Moët Chandon or Dom Pérignon amidst the field occupied largely by the ‘sparkling beverages’ that are its contemporaries.