François Ozon, the prolific and provocative French director who won the Berlinale’s 2018 Silver Bear Award with “By the Grace of God,” is returning to the festival with “Peter von Kant” which will world premiere on opening night. A twist on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cult film “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” Ozon’s movie has Denis Menochet playing the tormented filmmaker, opposite Isabelle Adjani, who stars as his muse. Like the original film, “Peter von Kant” is about a film about love, jealousy and domination. It’s Ozon’s sixth movie in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. Ozon’s Berlin films include 2000’s “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” another adaptation of a Fassbinder work, and “8 Women,” which won the Silver Bear 20 years ago. The director discussed his artistic ambition for the “Peter von Kant” with Variety.
This is your second Fassbinder-based project. Why is Fassbinder’s legacy so important to you and your body of work?
Fassbinder is a filmmaker whose body of work, way of thinking and world view has always haunted me. His incredible creative energy also fascinates me and his way of working has been a model to me.
In “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” there were a very assumed theatricality and an ironic distancing that were reminiscent of Fassbinder’s cinema. For this adaptation of “Petra von Kant,” I wanted to bring more empathy. I think with age and experience I understand Fassbinder better, his way of seeing life, creation and love even in its most abject aspects. Fassbinder is not a amicable filmmaker, his films aren’t amicable and I wanted us to be struck by different feelings towards Peter, to be able to find him despicable, but a minute later, find him moving, grotesque, endearing…
My favorite reference in Fassbinder’s work is his magnificent documentary short in the omnibus film “Germany in the Fall,” where he films himself, without any frills, in his apartment, with his mother, his lover, forcing them to give an opinion about the situation in German society, about terrorism… He weaves the intimate and the political in a raw way and strips down, literally and figuratively, appearing pathetic, as well as sincere and poignant.
The original is a film made for a female muse (Margit Carstensen) and that’s also true of so many of your films; so why did you turn the character of Petra von Kant into a man and a filmmaker? How much of it a self-portrait?
I wanted to film a version of “Petra von Kant” in which I could identify myself more directly. That’s why I chose to forget the world of fashion and set the movie within the world of cinema, and have three main characters represent the male gender. I had the intuition that Fassbinder’s original text was a self-portrait, centered on one of his passionate love story. Juliane Lorenz, his last girlfriend whom I’ve known since my adaptation of “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” confirmed my intuition. In “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” Fassbinder transposed his sad love story with one of his favorite actors, Günther Kaufmann, into a lesbian love story between a fashion designer and her model.
Many of your recent films have touched upon contemporary social issues and sparked debates, do you think it will also be the case with “Peter Von Kant”?
For this film, the idea was to tell a universal tale of passion, timely as ever, by exploring the relationships of domination, control and submission in the creative world, and the relationship between a muse and someone powerful.
How was it to work with Isabelle Adjani? Why did you choose her for this role?
I dreamed of working with Isabelle Adjani forever, and I was convinced that it would never happen. I was therefore delighted when she accepted (to take this role) and touched by the way she loved the script. She didn’t obsess over the size of her role, she was drawn by the things that the movie said about love relationships, which she intimately understood.
Isabelle is a fascinating actress, like a Stradivarius violin. You just need to tell her: a little more, or a little less emotion or cruelty … and she executes herself gracefully. For her role, we were inspired by Pascaline Chavanne, by the look of actresses in the ’70s, [and] Marlene Dietrich or Elizabeth Taylor. Isabelle likes to create performances and I think she found it amusing to play this character of a drugged-out diva, to have enough derision to play an actress who is so different from her and at the same time obviously close in the minds of audiences.
As with Peter, there are accents of truth in this character and we had to dare to show their irony and vulnerability.