For his latest outing, François Ozon remakes Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Sumptuously shot and compellingly performed, this worthy remake of the celebrated original is a handsome work in its own right and is an affectionate tribute to its German predecessor. But beyond its gender-swapped lead role, Peter von Kant never truly ventures into new territory and so never quite justifies its own existence.
The eponymous Peter (Denis Ménochet, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Fassbinder) is a successful but unfulfilled film director – retooled from the original Petra’s fashion designer – living along in his luxury apartment save for his silent, ever watchful assistant, Karl (Stefan Crepon), who lurks in the background of every scene like a downcast Nosferatu in a cardigan and a 1970s ‘tache. Peter is a functional alcoholic, spending his days bellowing at Karl, who appears to do all the work in preparing his new film. The pair are in a relationship that has clearly sadomasochistic subtexts, meanwhile Peter entertains his friend Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani) and lectures her on the virtues of free love.
This dynamic is disrupted when Sidonie introduces Peter to the Amir (Khalil Ben Gharbia), a stunningly gorgeous, married young man, whom Peter instantly develops an attraction towards. The broad strokes of Peter von Kant’s plot is virtually identical to the original, making its departures especially notable; the age difference carries over from Fassbinder (though it somehow feels more pronounced here), but Amir’s ethnicity also suggests a subtle tribute to another Fassbinder masterpiece in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
Making Peter a film director provides the opportunity to have him film Amir and give us the film’s most effective and emotionally moving scene (not to mention that as Peter unravels later on in the film, he is tormented by the enormous images of Amir with which he has decorated his apartment). It is no coincidence that this scene represents the film’s boldest departure from Fassbinder and the only real moment it finds something new to say.
Ozon’s camera is more dynamic than Fassbinder’s, his period setting more settled, his visuals more luxuriant. But Fassbinder – in all his films – captured the cruelty, the allure, the filth, the glamour, the sex, the very vapour of humanity that defined that great and terrible twentieth century. Petra Von Kant is the stagiest of all his films: a bottle episode that never ventures outside the confines of Petra’s apartment, and yet seems to capture profound glimpses of the world outside. Even time itself is collapsed, from references to Mick Jagger to Marlene’s (Karl’s equivalent) flapper hair-do.
Ozon grants us several external shots of Peter’s apartment and a far more definitive period setting. But in that firmer literal rooting a deeper allegorical richness is lost. Ménochet is an absolute riot to watch unravel in the lead and on its own terms Peter von Kant is no doubt a good film – perhaps even a very good one – but in the end I’m not convinced that it was one with a great deal to say.