‘Peter von Kant’ Review: A Diverting But Disposable Work of Fassbinder Fanfic From François Ozon

A famous filmmaker falls cataclysmically in love with his protégé in a gender-swapped riff on Fassbinder's classic psychosexual melodrama.

Peter von Kant
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

How do you make something real out of something that was artificial to begin with? Should you even try? François Ozon has, with “Peter von Kant”: a deconstructed, gender-swapped and then fastidiously reconstructed overhaul of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” 50 years on, Fassbinder’s film remains as close to un-remake-able as any ever made, mainly because it remakes itself every second as it goes along. If this makes Ozon’s version, which opens this year’s Berlin Film Festival, an oddly self-invalidating proposition from the get-go, that impression only deepens as the minutes tick amusingly but inconsequentially by.

For the uninitiated (who are very obviously not the audience for this inside-baseball bauble), Fassbinder’s film is the story of a sadomasochistic lesbian love triangle between a successful fashion designer, her model protégée and her mute assistant. (It features perhaps cinema’s most famous dom/sub relationship prior to the very vanilla BDSM stylings of the “Fifty Shades” franchise.) Ozon’s version keeps the sexual power play, but changes up the sexes: Petra is now Peter (Denis Ménochet), a famous filmmaker who bears more than a passing sartorial and tonsorial resemblance to Fassbinder himself.

It is 1972 — the year of the original film’s release — and Peter is prowling around his louche Cologne apartment barking orders at his silent assistant Karl (Stéfan Crépon). He dictates a letter to Romy Schneider, calls his mother, Rosemarie (Hanna Schygulla, one of “Petra von Kant’s” original stars), and demands that Karl slow-dance with him, to a song inauspiciously called “Every Man Kills the Thing He Loves.” The singer is Peter’s friend, collaborator and long-ago ex Sidonie (a fantastic Isabelle Adjani, who really understood the assignment), a movie star whose face adorns an entire wall behind his bed.

Sidonie shows up in a cloud of fur and glamor, haloed with perfectly mussed hair. (Stylist Franck-Pascal Alquinet’s work is so integral to proceedings that if you were to discover a L’Oréal Elnett co-production credit, you wouldn’t be particularly surprised.) Sidonie refuses a cognac but snorts cocaine direct from a custom compact, before introducing Peter to her 23-year-old lunch companion, Amir (Khalil Gharbia). One glance at Amir’s lithe body, curly mop and perfectly heart-shaped pout, and Peter is immediately, obsessively in love. Amir moves in, but a few months later, he’s already showing signs of irritation. When their affair inevitably implodes, it’s Sidonie, Rosemarie and Peter’s neglected teenage daughter Gabrielle (Aminthe Audiard) who all suffer the fallout.

All the while, Karl darts noiselessly around the apartment where the whole film takes place, absorbing the various humiliations both Peter and Amir lob at him. Crépon’s wordless physicality is a wonder here, from the obsequious, backward-leaning way he walks — with his hips entering a room about five minutes before his shoulders — to his moist, expressive “cow eyes,” as Peter sneeringly calls them, which can throw daggers or love hearts with equal intensity. One of DP Manu Dacosse’s elegantly manufactured pull-focus shots gradually blurs Peter and Amir in the foreground, and though Karl is far away in the frame, you still catch the glint of his welling tears.

Adjani is the other standout, making the most of Sidonie’s over-glossed lips and fake laugh, and keying into Fassbinder’s sympathy for characters with a garish inability to express genuine feeling in anything but the most artificial of terms. It’s a tacky, spiky edge that Ménochet’s polished performance lacks, despite his considerable commitment. He certainly goes all in, yet even with Dacosse’s camera at its most pushy and predatory, hounding and bugging Peter in shot after shot, there is no real sense of the vulnerability Fassbinder always got from his performers. This invisible barrier between actor and character only comes down when a bearlike Peter is bellowing and hurling crockery. Once the film moves into its resigned, lonely final moments, the remove returns.

The change of gender and profession that Ozon has made to the protagonist is not arbitrary. With “Petra von Kant” widely believed to have been a veiled account of one of Fassbinder’s own love affairs, Ozon is, in some ways, bringing the story back to its presumed origins. Yet that only shows up the odd pointlessness of the whole endeavor. When so much of the earlier film’s art hinges on its artifice, stripping that surface away removes at least some of the artistry — it’s like trying to recapture the essence of a Warhol Campbell’s soup can with, well, a Campbell’s soup can. The wigs, the furs, the enormous Xerox of a Poussin painting on the wall: Everything in Fassbinder’s rightly canonized movie is fake, except the emotions. In Ozon’s loving, diverting but inessential homage, everything is real except the bitter, glycerine tears.

‘Peter von Kant’ Review: A Diverting But Disposable Work of Fassbinder Fanfic From François Ozon

Reviewed in Berlin Film Festival (Competition), Feb. 10, 2022. Running time: 85 MIN.

  • Production: (France) A FOZ production in co-production with France 2 Cinema, Playtime, Scope Pictures. (World sales: Playtime, Paris.) Producer: François Ozon. Co-producers: Valérie Boyer, Sébastien Beffa, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, François Yon, Geneviève Lemal.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: François Ozon, adapted from the film "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Camera: Manu Dacosse. Editor: Laure Gardette. Music: Clément Ducol.
  • With: Denis Ménochet, Isabelle Adjani, Khalil Gharbia, Hanna Schygulla, Stéfan Crépon, Aminthe Audiard. (French, German dialogue)