The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972. 7.5 /10

Presented with an episodic structure, Bitter Tears is Fassbinder’s cinematic version of his play. The subject is a love affair involving fashion designer Petra (Margit Cartensen) and aspiring model, Karin (Hanna Schygulla). All of this under the eyes of Petra’s obscure secretary, Marlene (Irm Hermann).

This is the epitomy of a character-driven movie: there’s just one setting–Petra’s apartment–and a small cast. Kartin Schaake plays Petra’s friend, Sidonie; and there’s Petra’s daughters Gabrielle (Eva Mattes) and mom, Valerie (Fackelday). Petra’s divorced; Karin, who is separated from her husband, is Sidonie’s friend.

Petra’s awakened by Marlene’s quick opening of the blinds. On the phone with her mom, Petra makes excuses for not visiting with her. Marlene says nothing; but works on a painting. Still in bed, Petra dictates a letter, which Marlene types.

Petra puts on a wig while we hear a Platters record–they dance briefly, then Petra orders Marlene to finish the painting (it’s probably for a fashion ad). On the phone again, Petra makes an appointment with a client. Sidonie arrives. She hasn’t seen Petra in three years.

Already I sense that my comments are pure synopsis: this is, in one sense, a domestic documentary, a reality show. And my reaction probably reads like an amateurish version of a chapter from a French ‘new novel’ from the ’50s or ’60s by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

While Marlene looks and listens from behind a partition, Petra and Sidonie discuss the men in their lives. Petra has a vaguely smug look, Marlene, impassive. Anyway, Petra continues to talk about her failed marriage, “stuck in the mire” is her take on it.

Petra continues smirking, but seems to wipe away tears as she talks. Marlene serves coffee, then is whisked away. Marlene’s in an odd position–a live-in employee/ex?-lover. “Don’t take any notice of her” Petra tells Sidonie. I’m glad Sidonie notices Petra’s attitude “don’t sneer at me” she tells her.

Petra describes marriage in such idealistic terms, the idea is to “make everything anew,” so that it’s no wonder that her’s failed. When Sidonie replies that love isn’t that complicated, Petra brushes her off. In short it seems that her husband, Frank, was boring, conventional, and, not surprising given the time, domineering.

On the other hand, Petra objectifies him, finding fault with his habits and mannerisms. We see this mocking quality in her relationship with Marlene. Anyway, here’s Karin come knocking. “Things are a bit upside down” Petra tells her; she means the place is messy, but it’s a unintentional comment on her psychological mess as well.

Sidonie is going off with Karin. Petra invites Karin back the next night, ostensibly to model. So, then, she’s got Karin dolled up. I guess both her and Petra know what fashion is, but I can’t see it in what they’re wearing. Quaintly, Karin answers questions about herself by saying that she “just want my little corner of the world.”

When Karin realizes that they disagree on everything, she implores Petra “do we have to fight?” Remarkably, Petra says that they do. At any rate, they find enough to talk about; Karin lets on that husband abandoned her in Australia. Sad, but no big deal. How about “dad beat mom to death then hung himself.” Now, that’s a big deal.

Then Karin sums it up with “people like me until they hear my story.” At least Petra reassures her that she likes her all the more. And, “I’ll design a [fashion] collection especially for you…. I’ll make a top model out of you.” That sounds like a pathway to redemption for both of them.

I’m pretty certain, however, that Fassbinder isn’t about to give us a rainbows and happy trees tableau. Anyway, Petra starts talking about her first husband–he definitely sounds better than Frank. In the background, Karin starts to dance to the vintage American music. Petra falls right down into gloom and doom “people are hard and brutal…everyone’s replaceable.”

Now she’s trying to lure Karin by asking her to move in. She admits at least that she’s lonely. And then Petra says she loves her; Karin agrees to move in. The next scene, Karin’s lolling in bed while Petra tries to talk her into going back to school. They are indeed roommates “screw you” is Karin’s retort to Petra.

Eventually, Karin breaks down enough to let Petra nuzzle her; but she won’t go further because he hasn’t brushed her teeth (!). Then she says she just wants to read “We can’t play with each other 24 hours a day.” But Petra disagrees “we can.” It seems pretty clear that now Karin’s in the driver’s seat with this relationship.

She’d been weak to agree to moving in with Petra in the first place, as it was clear what the older woman was up to. At any rate. Karin’s playing her new role to the hilt–when Petra questions her about who she went dancing with, she shoots back with a load of double cannister, so to speak. “A big black man with a big black d**k.”

Forty five years ago that could’ve been an incindiary comment between many white women. Marlene is of course in the background working on another gauche design. Karin continues the taunts about her date; is some or all of it true? Does it matter? “You want to be told lies” Karin tells her.

Finally Karin admits she made the whole thing up. But “I need a man from time to time.” Sounds reasonable–what does Petra expect? Her further consolation “I just use men” is ironically something in her favor, in Petra’s eyes.

At this point, her love for Karin is something that she “aches” with; it may well be the deepest love of her life. As mentioned, she’s completely changed. No smirking hautiness, just passive expectation. So, she still needles Karin about the one-night-stand guy. Now he’s black once again but with this proviso: he has a “European face.” Is there such a thing?

Karin accuses Petra of being hysterical, no, she’s just “suffering.” Because she can’t possess her, it seems. In the paper, there’s an article on Petra, and a candid shot of Karin. They’re both happy about the coverage. But then, Karin gets a call from Freddy, her husband. He’s in Europe, and they want to get together (she says she loves him).

Petra is stunned; Karin now says that when she told Petra that she was divorcing him, it was just a future possibility, not an eventuality. I never thought this would happen, but Petra has transformed from a total unsympathetic character, to a pitiable one, and now even sympathetic one. Karin has been playing her exactly how she said she played men.

Karin instantly becomes a “rotten whore” to Petra. The only positive for Petra is that Karin’s leaving soon. I’ll grant that Karin was talked into her relationship with Petra, as it was “just fun” from her perspective. Although, since she apparently never intended to divorce Freddy, or she just changed her mind, she should have confided as much after she got serious with Petra.

Instead she built up a sort of parallel universe; Freddy and Petra? Clearly no happy future there. I can hardly wait to see how this ends up. Well, there won’t be any violence, but just about nothing else would surprise me.

Petra’s reduced to “I’ll do anything for you..I only exist for you…” But, the girl’s not buying “lonely; [you mean] without your whore?” After Petra spits in her face, she gives her money. I just wish we’d get out of that overdecorated bedroom. Guess not. She’s on the jungle-length shag carpet with a bottle and a phone.

“I’m so screwed up!” Right you are, Petra. She’s ruminating…then, miraculously, her daughter Gaby (Gabrielle) pops in. Petra has to tell her that Karin’s not coming. The girl tells her mom that she’s in love. But, in an odd parallel, it’s so far just an unrequited crush.

We learn that it’s Petra’s birthday; now at least there’s a reason for her latest fashion incarnation–and another wig. It’s Sidonie that’s come calling now. Petra’s reaction is to crush her vodka glass in her hand. After all, it was Sidonie who introduced her to Karin.

With the unintentional impact of a triggered booby-trap, Sidonie’s birthday present is a doll with Karin’s hair color, style, and, come to think of it, a similar doll face. Time to yell for Marlene. Then, not knowing the score–or shut-out so to speak–between Petra and Karin, Sidonie goes on to extoll Karin’s sudden success. All of which was jump-started by Petra, of course.

Actually, we learn that Sidonie does know the score. She’s kept up with Karin…then, ponder this news: Karin “might drop in.” A red herring? A violent denouement after all? I sense a slightly smug tone from Sidonie. Next party guest is Valerie.

The three guests are babbling on like a bunch of kids having a sleepover. Meanwhile, Petra is going nuts “you’re all so fake…a pack of dirty rats…parasites.” She’s right. When Sidonie explains that Petra’s fit is over Karin, Petra corrects them “Crazy? No, I love her as I’ve never loved anyone before.”

The phone rings, but it’s not Karin. Petra’s reduced to writhing on the floor, and wanting them to leave. She speaks of suicide. Later, her mom tells her about the day she was born. Petra admits that she wanted to possess Karin, not love her.

Karin calls. Everything has calmed down. And, surprisingly, Petra has a normal conversation with her; Karin’s off to Paris. Petra wishes her well. The double shocker is that Petra apologizes to Marlene; setting her “free.” Marlene actually packs up and splits. The end.

This was exhausting. In some respects The Tears is remarkable: the casting’s right on, the set (pretty much a million views of the bedroom–a whole world in itself), and, of course, the quintessential dramatic theme, love.

That bedroom pretty much serves as a character; its garish array of colors we can’t escape, particularly in the scenes near the end, where everyone wears an eye-popping acidic outfit. That’s not even touching on the mannequins here and there, like so many stiffs or body parts. Then the ever-changing facade Petra presents; she actually looks like a different person over and over again–new hair, new outfit, viola!

The Karin/Petra romance stands at the center of everything. It’s masterfully done, and very convincing. Both women are used by the other. Petra suffers greatly when they break up, Karin not at all. Tangibly, Karin can go back to her husband; emotionally, she’s waded into her romance with Petra, not gone off the high dive. So it’s relatively easy for her to cut her losses.

Fassbinder manages to tell a tale with raw emotional verisimilitude against a a lurid, near psychedelic background. A lucid dream. I haven’t even mentioned Marlene’s ghostly presence. She’s very much Petra’s shadow, literally, dressed in dark colors, trying to almost not exist. Yet she’s simultaneously an embodiment of Petra’s conscience.

She’s needed until Petra ceases to be needy. Petra spends most of her extra energy mistreating her for no reason. Petra loves to hate, so she needs to pretend to hate Marlene. Only at the very end do we see Petra accepting herself–and her situation–as is. Nothing to hate anymore.

I might have been more satisfied if things had ended with Petra’s long dressing down of her mother, daughter, and friend. That would seem more consistent and logical than the sudden enlightenment she gets by virtue of…soothing words from her mom. Fassbinder spends two hours setting up this slice of life, only to put it all back into one piece in the last few minutes.

I’m not saying the ending didn’t work, it just wasn’t the best ending. Another issue for me is that we get too much of the same thing; the first two parts–before and during Karin’s scenes–are just a bit too long. Considering the very limited horizon, though, the pacing is pretty good.

If someone had said, ‘hey, let’s make a movie about five women and a bed’ we’d think…that’s a scene, not a movie. It is just a scene, all right, and a very curious, very idiosyncratic movie. Flawed, but fascinating.

7.5 out of 10.

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