More than 20 years after adapting a Rainer Werner Fassbinder play called “Waters Drops on Burning Rocks” into a movie, François Ozon has made this gender-flipped adaptation of one of Fassbinder’s greatest films, “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” in an attempt to understand Fassbinder’s real-life struggle with the power plays of love.
Fassbinder’s “Petra von Kant” was shot very quickly on a very low budget, and he used a lot of long takes; every camera movement in Fassbinder’s version of this material feels so ultra-controlled that watching it is like getting tied up in an S & M dungeon or getting slowly strangled by a python. Ozon shoots his own “Peter von Kant” with a casualness that can feel frivolous, and he uses very conventional short takes for shot/reverse shot conversations.
Fassbinder’s “Petra von Kant” revolves around a lesbian love triangle that consists of Margit Carstensen’s tyrannical fashion designer Petra, Irm Hermann’s silent and submissive servant Marlene, and Hanna Schygulla’s beautiful young Karin. In Ozon’s film, Petra has become the famous film director Peter (Denis Ménochet), Marlene has been changed into a silent male servant named Karl (Stefan Crepon), and Karin is now a beautiful young opportunist named Amir (Khalil Gharbia).
Ozon has said that he made this change because “Petra von Kant” was based on Fassbinder’s own feelings of despair over his lover Gunther Kaufmann, but writing female characters is partly what freed Fassbinder to use his own love problems creatively and objectively. There is never any doubt about where Fassbinder himself stands in any of his films; his viewpoint is consummately pessimistic. By contrast, it is pretty much impossible to know what Ozon himself makes of the love problems of Ménochet’s Peter von Kant.
“Peter von Kant” is set in the 1970s, and so Peter is prey to the self-hating masochism of an older gay man who naively thinks a transactional relationship with a beautiful young man is about love rather than ambition. Though it is much rarer, this is a situation that still occurs in 2022, and so it might have behooved Ozon to set his new version in the present, when Peter might not fall into this trap so easily, which could have given the film more dramatic tension.
If Ozon’s “Peter von Kant” has its minor pleasures, they come from the performers. Isabelle Adjani swans around with such half-crazed verve as a manipulative actress friend of Peter’s named Sidonie that she seems more than ready to take over the film, and Ménochet, Gharbia, and Crepon are all perfectly cast. Ozon is manipulative himself here by casting Hanna Schygulla as the mother of Ménochet’s Peter, who looks and dresses increasingly like Fassbinder himself as the film goes on. Having an aged Schygulla sing a motherly lullaby to a Fassbinder-ish character on screen has a power and a resonance that Ozon himself hasn’t earned, but that power and resonance is real.
The prolific Ozon makes so many lightweight movies that it has been tempting to write him off in recent years, but in 2018 he released a major film called “By the Grace of God” that tackled the theme of child sexual molestation in the French Catholic Church with such rigor and technical control that it revealed just what he can do when he focuses and takes a subject seriously. That movie proved that he is capable of much more than his recent output might suggest.
“Peter von Kant” is superior to some of Ozon’s worst pictures, and there is a gradual sort of focus that occurs as the main love plot tightens. But filmmaking for Fassbinder was always a matter of life and death; there was a sense that he would kill himself to finish a movie. Ozon too often treats moviemaking like a hastily planned party he’s giving with a starry guest list; he got by with that at the beginning of his career, but it isn’t enough now.
It’s time that the mature Ozon made a film that reveals what he himself thinks about life and relationships; if “By the Grace of God” is any indication, this point of view might be as dark as Fassbinder’s own. It is surely darker than the party-game Fassbinder that Ozon offered in “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” and now in “Peter von Kant,” which is sometimes diverting but doesn’t begin to speak to the complex issues that would make it a worthy answer to one of Fassbinder’s key masterpieces.
“Peter Von Kant” opens in US theaters September 2.