Back in 1999, when François Ozon was still an audacious emerging voice in French cinema, he plucked an unproduced stage piece from the Rainer Werner Fassbinder files — written when the great German bad boy was just 19 — and made the cheeky satire of relationship dynamics, Water Drops on Burning Rocks. Given that some of the play’s themes would evolve and be refined in later Fassbinder works, notably The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, it seems entirely fitting that more than two decades later, Ozon refashions that source into another playfully theatrical exercise, turning the tortured lesbian romance into a droll take on gay male obsession.
The result, titled Peter von Kant, seems almost tailor-made to open the Berlin Film Festival, with its roots in German film history and its extravagant homage to one of the country’s most radical 20th century auteurs, who died in 1982 aged just 36. Ozon’s film is billed as “freely adapted” from the Fassbinder, but for the most part, it’s remarkably faithful. That said, the French filmmaker has very much made it his own, having fun with the material with an esprit that’s been considerably muted in more somber recent outings like By the Grace of God and Everything Went Fine.
Peter von Kant
The further queering of a queer classic.
The enduring influence of Petra von Kant — Olivier Assayas riffed on it with the stage play at the center of Clouds of Sils Maria and Peter Strickland drew inspiration for The Duke of Burgundy — is remarkable considering the original film holds up less well than most other classic Fassbinders. It dealt openly with lesbian passion way back in 1972, but was never an overwhelming favorite of queer women and has often been called misogynistic. It hitched Fassbinder’s roots in experimental theater to his revelatory discovery of the florid melodramas of Douglas Sirk, and consequently, it now plays as arch, stilted camp, albeit with an emotional savagery that occasionally draws blood.
Ozon embraces the artifice but has loosened it up quite a bit, coaxing a more lived-in suppleness from his actors, notably a magnificent Denis Ménochet as the title character — his resemblance to Fassbinder at times uncanny. This von Kant has also switched careers from fashion designer in the original to successful film director here, allowing Ozon to reflect on the particular forms of seduction, ego-massage and love-hate veneration between cineaste and muse.
Peter’s greatest discovery, and now his confidante, Sidonie, is played with wry self-awareness by Isabelle Adjani, wrapped in white fur, gold lamé and the shady sincerity of a dear friend really only looking out for herself. When he turns on her, as he does pretty much everyone late in the action, she responds with amusingly performative wounded shock: “I’m a star, but I’m also human.” Adjani also recorded a breathy German-language version of “Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves,” the song spun from Oscar Wilde’s words that was performed by Jeanne Moreau in Fassbinder’s Querelle. It’s one of a handful of records Peter throws onto the turntable, usually while losing himself in the past.
Peter is living his best louche life, lounging around his fabulous apartment in 1972 Cologne with his doting, eternally silent live-in assistant Karl (Stéfan Crépon) responding to his every barking demand, when Sidonie turns up to visit for the first time in three years. Over an early-morning line of blow, she offers her sympathies for the bust-up of his most recent relationship, which Peter claims had soured because his career continued to soar while his male partner’s stalled. Still, he’s sniffy and superior about his choice to love artists while Sidonie married a rich businessman.
As both a gift and a curse, Sidonie introduces Peter to Amir (Khalil Gharbia), whom she met while traveling back from Australia. A sexy 23-year-old with a confident swagger, a carnal mouth and a mop of dark curls, Amir casts an instant spell on the considerably older man, who invites him back the next night to discuss a career in acting and a possible role in his next production. Peter bellowing “Karl, shell his shrimp!” during a seafood and champagne dinner with Amir might be the funniest gay master-slave interaction in screen history.
Perhaps Ozon’s biggest departure from Fassbinder is having Peter film that second encounter as a casting session. Amir shares the tragic, possibly fabricated history of his parents and his own unhappy marriage with a candor that prompts Peter to seize the camera from Karl in a moment of passion for his new discovery. In no time at all, Amir is doing a naked, post-coital dance to The Walker Brothers’ “In My Room” — the one song selection Ozon repeats from the original — mirroring the homoerotic poses of Saint Sebastian in the giant Italian art reproductions that adorn the apartment walls.
Those images will later sit alongside blowup photos and magazine covers of Amir. The unraveling of their relationship when the action cuts to nine months after their first meeting follows the same course as the original film. While still using sex to manipulate the helplessly besotted Peter, Amir dispenses his affections begrudgingly, rubbing his lover’s nose in his dalliances outside the relationship. A degree of stardom hasn’t made Amir more interested in his craft, and “discipline” is a word he disdains. Instead, he mostly lazes about, smoking on a fur rug and ridiculing Peter’s neediness.
When a phone call from Amir’s wife prompts his departure, Peter turns vitriolic, calling him a “dirty little whore.” Left alone again in his solitude, he falls apart spectacularly. Ménochet is at his considerable best in these scenes, his ample girth exposed in an open bathrobe as he hurls himself into drama-queen Peter’s misery. The glorious crescendo of all this comes in a dance of emotional desolation to the 1970 chanson “Comme au théâtre,” by Cora Vaucaire, as the absent twink-fatale Amir mocks him from the walls. Even Peter’s celebrated filmmaking seems suddenly to hold little value for him; he shrugs indifferently over a recent triumph at Cannes.
Along with Peter’s 14-year-old daughter Gabrielle (Aminthe Audiard), visiting from her Swiss boarding school, his mother Rosemarie (Hanna Schygulla) and Sidonie turn up to celebrate his birthday and get showered with scorn and smashed kitchenware for their troubles. But Rosemarie comforts him in a lovely scene, singing a German lullaby (the film otherwise is predominantly in French, further underlining its dreamily abstract setting). Casting indispensable Fassbinder collaborator Schygulla, who played the original object of desire to Petra von Kant, was a gorgeous act of genuflection that’s completed by a vintage photo of the late director and his muse together at the close of the credits.
Ozon’s version differs subtly from his predecessor’s by leaving Peter with some shreds of hope and dignity, with the hint that his suffering ultimately might feed his art. And while the action (like Water Drops on Burning Rocks) is almost entirely confined to Peter’s apartment, a final phone call with Amir suggests that although this is primarily a story about the cruelty and masochism of love, the experience can cut both ways.
All the actors deliver work unerringly in sync with Ozon’s flamboyant vision, which naturally is filtered through Fassbinder’s and Sirk’s. The fearless Ménochet uses his entire body to express both agony and ecstasy; he doesn’t shy away from the script’s delicious humor, but from beneath Peter’s outsize self-pity, genuine pathos ultimately pushes through.
Special mention needs to be made of Crépon’s selflessly devoted — up to a point — Karl. Some of costume designer Pascaline Chavanne’s most inspired wardrobe choices are for Peter’s houseboy: leather vests paired with turtlenecks and snug bellbottom trousers over a reed-like figure that’s the opposite of his employer’s. His look is to die for, with flawlessly Brylcreemed hair, a petulant mustache and big, sad “cow eyes,” as Peter shrieks at him in a moment of rage. The alertness with which Karl observes the tawdry emotional theater of the household from behind doorways, or over the typewriter as he bangs away at Peter’s scripts, or while rushing back and forth fetching coffee, cognac or champagne makes him a fascinating character of churning psychological depths.
Production designer Katia Wyszkop and cinematographer Manu Dacosse excel at creating visual texture out of the confined setting, providing glimpses of the gardens and courtyard outside for breathing space. The film’s meticulously crafted look owes much to Fassbinder’s original model, but also possibly to the elaborate interiors of Pedro Almodóvar, who pulled off a similar stunt of high-wire theatricality with his pandemic-produced short film, The Human Voice.
Peter von Kant is perhaps a bit too rarefied an endeavor to significantly expand Ozon’s following, and some LGBTQ audiences might conceivably flinch at its protagonist’s self-flagellation, much as they did with Fassbinder’s. But its skewering of celebrity is mischievously enjoyable and its declaration of love for a queer-cinema forefather disarmingly sincere.