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  • Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale. 

The title gives away the two biggest changes in Peter von Kant, Francois Ozon’s mannered, self-amused, oddly aerated reworking of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play and film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The most obvious, you might think, is in the naming. The Petra of Fassbinder’s hothouse Sapphic drama is now Peter, played by the burly picture of masculinity that is Denis Menochet. That gender flip enables the driving idea of Ozon’s curious remake-as-fanfic-as-tribute: the tragic heroine whom Fassbinder wrote as a distanced proxy for his own romantic woes is now rewritten in the image of the late filmmaker himself, turning fiction into a kind of distorted, speculative biography.

Then there’s the abbreviation: Petra’s bitter tears have been dropped from the title, streamlined and shorn of its melodramatic grandeur, and that largely goes for the film itself. Cheeks are moistened toward the end of Ozon’s version, but not with the original’s plunging intensity of feeling; arch comedy takes over, much of it at the expense of Menochet’s brutish, brooding diva. This isn’t the first time Ozon has taken on a Fassbinder text, but Peter von Kant feels more self-conscious about its relationship to the source than 2000’s limber, loose-tongued Water Drops on Burning Rocks. Everything is in quotation marks, even the tears.

Petra was a fashion designer; Peter, like his original creator and counterpart, is a filmmaker, though it’s hard to tell when he fits filmmaking into his strenuous routine of drinking, malingering and pacing his large, garishly decorated Cologne studio apartment in a deep-pile dressing gown. As in the original, the action never leaves the red-and-black-walled confines of this space, and the longer we spend there, it’s hard to imagine Peter having any life outside of it. Even his writing, which could at least mentally transport him to other places, is delegated to his seemingly mute assistant Karl (a marvellous Stéfan Crépon) who, between his sloping, servile demeanour, egg-eyed gaze and brittle-boned body language, is less man Friday than human whippet.

We’re left to guess if it falls to Karl to serve his master’s more carnal needs in the gaps between Peter’s repeated fixations on less constant male companions. If it does, he’s on merciful hiatus for much of the film, after Peter’s actress friend and former muse Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani, bouffant in both coiffure and presence) introduces the middle-aged maestro to 23-year-old Adonis and would-be actor Amir (Khalil Gharbia). It’s love at first sight for the older man, and an opportunity well-spotted for the younger one; months later, Amir is hot property but already cooling off on Peter, who reacts to his toyboy’s clearly imminent escape with fast-escalating desperation. 

Denis Ménochet and Isabelle Adjani in Peter von Kant (2022)
Denis Ménochet and Isabelle Adjani in Peter von Kant (2022)
© Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

Lacerating himself and lashing out at others – Karl, most consistently and cruelly, but also Sidonie, his mother Rosemarie (Hanna Schygulla, providing a direct DNA link to the original) and his teenage daughter Gabrielle (Aminthe Audiard). Peter’s boozy, self-destructive meltdown reaches a similar hysterical volume to Petra’s, though nothing like the same deeply pained emotional tenor: if Ozon sees any great tragedy in Peter’s romantic misfortune and masochistic exploitation of others, he hardly lets on. As a skew-whiff portrait of Fassbinder itself, meanwhile, the film is forcefully inhabited by a committed Menochet, but the metatextual resemblance is too superficial for the film to serve as any kind of commentary on the artist and his work. 

The complete absence of men from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was ultimately its great power, its chamber-piece structure intensifying an intimate, deeply devoted consideration of how women act and interact in private spaces, away from patriarchal authority. In only half re-gendering the material, Peter von Kant perhaps misses a trick: Peter treats the women and fellow queer men in his life with a misogyny and misanthropy that merge quite convincingly into an all-purpose sourness, but the original’s sense of charged, vulnerable community is lost – down to the excision of much of the original play’s fragile, penitent final act from Ozon’s otherwise faithful adaptation.

You can certainly see why Ozon wanted to marry Schygulla into his update, or to give a regal Adjani a rare opportunity for some delicious, high-camp strutting. Their presence is enjoyable, as is much of this impish exercise, which works best when viewed as a kind of drag-act homage to Petra von Kant – a name and character that has surely launched a thousand queens – rather than a substantial reevaluation of the film’s (and Fassinder’s) bold queer politics.