Is “Peter Von Kant” the Cynical Romantic Masterwork We Have All Been Waiting For?


"I had to see him. We had to talk. You do not dismiss love in the way you dismiss your hairdresser," the French poet Louise Colet was incited to say after being cold-shouldered by her lover, Gustav Flaubert.

Ah, yes, Love, that obsessive passion! Or is it an affliction? Yes, indeedy! Be honest for a second. Just how often have we all loved too much or too little . . . or been the object of someone's relentless endearments, someone who really was enamored with the idea of Romance with a capital R instead of its actualities . . . A paramour with unbearable expectations garnered from reading 20 Harlequin romances in a row.

All of which brings us to François Ozon's second adaptation of a text by the iconic German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The first was the much-lauded Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000), a tale of a rather ghastly seducer who preys on both men and women before discarding them. He even caused one to have a sex change to win back his heart. The tale ends tragically, yet drolly, with a ménage à trois in bed and a newly minted corpse lying elsewhere.

For those unaware of Mr. Ozon until now --  a shocking admission -- the Frenchman started directing in 1988 at the age of 21, and has since made at least 27 features and countless more shorts, including Swimming Pool (2003), Frantz (2016), and Summer of 85 (2020). The majority are worth repeated viewings, although be aware that See the Sea will cause you never to leave your toothbrush out when you have guests coming around.

One can see the attraction Ozon has for the late Fassbinder, who directed 41 features and wrote 14 plays before dying at the age of 37. The pair's offerings frequently have in common a highly liberated sexual sensibility, an askew way of looking at the world, a need to batter down pretensions, and a way of having you laugh at their heroes" foibles while you also want to hug them and go, "There! There. It's all right. Life will get better."

Well, with Peter von Kant, Ozon remakes or, some might say, jumps off The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). His employs a total gender switch for many of the characters.

In the original, Petra (Margit Carstensen) is a clothing designer near the top of her field. She is already a name, but having lost several husbands in various ways, she's lives alone except for her wooden, faceless mannequins and a submissive aide who never speaks. Then a cousin, Sidonie, visits. The two chat about life's challenges for a woman.

Around then, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), an attractive 23-year-old friend of Sidonie's, arrives. Within minutes Petra comes on to her about being a model, and before the week's over, Karin, whose husband lives in Sydney, has moved into Petra's rather spacious apartment, onto her mattress, and into a highly successful modeling career. Shortly, it's bye, bye, Petra!

In response, the obsessive Petra gets immeasurably distraught and seems willing to destroy everything and everyone around her in her need to feel the Pain of the Rejected.

As Christian Brad Thomsen notes in his Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius (Faber and Faber, 1991), this was "the first popular masterpiece among Fassbinder's 'cinema films.'" In a way, Thomsen argues, here was a sort of lesbian All About Eve shoehorned into the "erotic drama" of Fassbinder's own life. Eve's director, Joseph Mankiewicz, even gets a mention early on.

Noting the biographical elements of the original play and film, Ozon sensationally casts a Fassbinder lookalike as his Peter (Dennis Ménochet) and as the love interest, Amir, the stunning Khalil Ben Gharbia. This Von Kant is a highly successful film director and this Amir is a poor, bisexual chap from a violent home whom you might want to mother and more.

Isabel Adjani, as beautiful as she was in The Story of Adele H (1975), plays an actress/friend of Von Kant who introduces the pair to each other, but not before noting, "When it comes to love, our flaws get the better of us." Peter responds by noting that his last boyfriend, Franz, "fucked me like a bull fucks a cow . . . . Franz stunk as only men stink."

Clearly, anyone who has ever hung around with the rich and famous -- particularly those who have had to work at becoming rich and famous in the creative arts -- will recognize the onscreen clashes of ego, tantrums, and the need to cherish one's faults as necessary for one's talents to flourish. Who around them is trustworthy? Can one love and exploit at the same time?

Surprisingly, while the whole cast is quite perfect, with Ménochet able to make you wince, guffaw, and almost weep simultaneously, and Gharbia, whose allure convinces you someone could become addicted to his Amir within seconds, it is, however, Stefan Crépon who steals the show as a silent Greek chorus .

Acquiescence has seldom been so definitively personified. Like a Margaret-Keane painting come alive, Crépon acts with his massive peepers. His Karl is a slavish apparition always within  Von Kant's calling. He squeezes oranges for their juice, rewrites scripts, pours drinks, plays butler, answers phones, pours cognac for his boss's lovers, dances when motioned to, and he's repaid with endless belittlement, which he might just enjoy.

But one must not forget Fassbinder's muse, Ms. Schygulla, who returns to the scene of warped amour, this time not as the object of desire but as Von Kant's mother. Ah, to have a rich son who supports you can have its downside, too.

Consequently, with Ozon's clever screenplay,  Katia Wyskjop's superb production design, Manu Dacosse's equally applaud-worthy cinematography, and a soundtrack inclusive of such heartbreaking tunes as Adjani's take on "Each Man Kills the Things He Loves" and The Walker Brothers "In My Room," Peter von Kant is one of the best offerings of the year.

Warning: Do not view The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant immediately before or after taking in Peter Von Kant. With its slightly stilted, Brechtian first act, Fassbinder's Petra takes a while to get kicking, while Ozon's Peter, a nominee for Best Film at both the Berlin Film Film Festival and the San Sebastián International Film Festival, is an immediate joy. Never dilute your joy.

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