Review: Fassbinder Gets a Gender-Swapped, Wickedly Funny Update in Peter von Kant

In the 1972 Rainer Werner Fassbinder film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, the lead character was a female fashion designer who ungracefully bows out of a relationship with her assistant in order to throw herself into an affair with a beautiful young would-be model. The work is an emotionally trying and heightened experience, but it’s something Von Kant must go through in order to come out the other side a better, less arrogant person. With his new, gender-swapped remake, the great director François Ozon places this arrogance in the far more timely form of a male filmmaker named Peter von Kant (Denis Ménochet), whose life and loves are made of pure drama, no more so then when he falls for a handsome young man called Amir (Khalil Gharbia).

Unlike the S&M tones of the designer/assistant relationship of the original, in Peter von Kant the dynamic between the filmmaker and assistant Karl (a wildly expressive but wordless performance by Stefan Crepon) is a little less defined. Peter is unnecessarily cruel and demanding of Karl, but Karl doesn’t seem to mind, or so we think. Perhaps there had been a romantic entanglement years earlier, but it feels as though Karl is fine being treated like dirt as long as he is allowed to exist in Peter’s orbit. It’s clear that Peter is considered both a talented and successful writer/director, and receives a barrage of phone calls when we meet him from those seeking to hire or otherwise work with him. 

On this particular day (I believe Ozon has kept the early-1970s timeframe), Peter’s muse, the great actor Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani), pays him a visit, and he assures her he’s writing a part for her in his next movie (this may or may not be true). But when her new young friend Amir arrives later to meet her, Peter is smitten from the minute he lays eyes on him. At a certain point, it becomes clear that Sidonie has introduced Amir to Peter as something of a gift, to stir the creative juices in Peter and make sure that script gets written for her. Peter and Amir meet again soon after, and they instantly begin a fairly intense and quick-moving romance, culminating with Amir moving in with Peter almost immediately.

The film jumps ahead several months, and not surprisingly, Amir’s youth and good looks have not only made him an object of desire for many other men and women, but Peter has made him the lead of his latest film, which has made Amir an instant, in-demand star (word is Franco Zeffirelli wants him in his next work). They are fighting a great deal, but still find it possible to make up quite passionately. But the truth seems clear to everyone but Peter that Amir is preparing to move on with his life, leaving Peter a hulking, blubbering, emotional shipwreck, lashing out at those closest to him, including his beloved Sidonie, as well as his mother (Hanna Schygulla) and visiting daughter (Aminthe Audiard), all of whom come to visit him on his birthday.

Somewhere in the brilliant recesses of Peter’s mind, he had to know his relationship with Amir was doomed to fail, but for a brief, shining moment, he has everything he wants in a life and a love affair, and he doesn’t want to let any of it go. A part of him probably knows that the pain he’s embarking upon is going to fuel his creative side for years to come. More than that, it will improve him as a person, at least for a time, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to rush into the darkness with any haste. 

Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Manuel Dacosse, Peter von Kant is a devastating chamber piece in which sensitive characters attempt to find meaningful connections, which ultimately lead to the torturous process of severing those connections, all the while being somewhat ridiculous along the way. It may not sound like it, but the film is wickedly funny at times and critical of some of its players (as it absolutely should be). At the very least, I’ll always admire this movie because it introduced me to Karl the hapless, but not helpless, manservant whose every expression and reaction is a source of pure delight. A fitting tribute to Fassbinder, done without simply lifting his style, and in the process, making it something wholly unique and timely.

The film is now playing theatrically at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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