The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant ★★★★

I’m fairly new to Fassbinder, so a small sampling of his work shown this past weekend at the Egyptian Theater offered for me a mixed assortment of curiosities with nebulous overlaps, out of which this distorted chamber drama emerged as a personal favorite. Given the all-female sanctuary, the men-as-structuring-absence idea (save for one Renaissance-era cock dangling strategically in many-a-master shot) and the preponderance of soul-bearing monologue-heavy close-ups, Cries and Whispers quickly became my primary reference point, though what struck me most about the film was its turn in the latter half toward Peter Greenaway-like surrealist theatricality. Systematic changes in costuming, hair color and décor reek of a symbolic tactic that I’m sure is out of my grasp with limited Fassbinder exposure, but the impact of bizarre staging and camera placement doesn’t get lost in translation. Petra is a psychologically fucked-up character (a history of plummeting relationships comes through in expositional dialogue), and her every gesture seems an expression of that damaged makeup—half-turning away from her guests, leaning up on household objects for extended periods of time as if posing for some non-existent photographer, and freezing into states of turmoil for minutes on end only to violently snap out of it in response to some sudden stimuli. Even stranger are the moments when her unsettled physicality becomes a contagion infecting the rest of the ensemble, as in a long floor-level shot that features Petra, her mother, her daughter and her maid all stuck in stasis as if waiting for some overdue curtain close. Add Fassbinder and DP Michael Ballhaus’ off-balance cinematography—somehow finding new perspectives from which to frame a single bedroom up until even the final shot—and you have a film that feels cryogenically frozen from all angles in stifled psychological disorder.