Thursday 5 January 2023

Man about the house: "Peter von Kant"

Some debate has raged over what exactly François Ozon has done to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's play-turned-movie The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Peter von Kant can't strictly be framed as a gender-flipped remake, since that would imply all its roles were now filled by men, like every other film made between 1972 and 2022. (As it is, one of the key roles here is filled by Isabelle Adjani: good for the poster, and too good an opportunity for Ozon to pass up.) It's clear Ozon has rethought and reworked this material, however - far more so than he did when filming Fassbinder's play Water Drops on Burning Rocks a quarter-century back. This von Kant is notably less rigid than the original: 85 minutes, set against its inspiration's 124, and blessed with a vast picture window that overlooks a courtyard and actual signs of life, where the first film mired itself in what often resembled the Black Hole of Calcutta. As that title makes clear, the protagonist is now masculine - indeed, as played by the hulking Denis Ménochet, arguably as masculine as it gets. He's also now a French film director in Cologne, bringing the character closer in line to Ozon and Fassbinder themselves. Nothing much has changed about the romantic hardship at the play's centre: having just jilted one ingenue, Peter von K falls hard for another (Khalil Gharbia as the knowingly named Amir Ben Salem), blind to the affections of the one person - mute underling Karl (Stefan Crepon) - who sincerely adores him. On the soundtrack, Scott Walker sounds as lonesome as ever; the amazingly sour diptych "People are terrible... everyone is disposable" survives the cut; there's a Hanna Schygulla callback cameo; and even traces of the old white shagpile remain, though no-one's going to drown or suffocate in it, as you once feared Petra von Kant and her victims might.

It is, on the whole, a happier - might one say cuddlier? - von Kant than its predecessor, if never quite succumbing to the full-on retro camp that governed Water Drops on Burning Rocks, then at least possessed of a cheery outlook. The streamlining has removed this text of its heavier psychodrama, its Teutonic Sturm-und-Drang, its bitter tears; of all the modes that Fassbinder toggled through in the course of his movie, light farce was apparently the one that spoke most to Ozon. (For Fassbinder's slow, deathly fades to black, editor Laure Gardette subs in spry, ironic juxtapositions - Peter turning down a line of coke, only to be observed seconds later up to his septum in the stuff.) Inevitably, that line of approach reconfigures our relationship to the protagonist. Set against Margit Carstensen's monstrous, merciless bloodsucker Petra, Ménochet's Peter is just a big sucker, a hopeless romantic/fool for love caught in the process of setting himself up for another fall. Like a pantomime retelling of a Grimm fairytale, this version has audience-proofed the material: Peter's often rocked and rattled, but Ménochet broadly appears robust enough to endure the worst of any meltdowns, while his lair, all cosy chocolate browns with the odd dash of Almodóvar chic, wouldn't be the worst place to hole up in the wake of heartbreak. (Gone are Petra's unnerving mannequins.) You wouldn't have to be a Bitter Tears loyalist to spot that this is by far the milder watch: the Ozon filmography, like most contemporary filmmakers' filmographies, has been constantly milder than the Fassbinder equivalent. Yet this version does bear out the hardy, adaptable sensibility that has enabled its maker to live beyond fifty and spend 25 of those years working consistently in the film business. With a smile, a shrug, a sly wink and the consoling assistance of pretty moving pictures, Ozon gets over - and helps us over - the rejection lurking at the heart of this tale. Fassbinder, stubborn to the last, couldn't and wouldn't, and it finally did for him at the tragically young age of 37. I know which is the healthier version of this story.

Peter von Kant is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

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