tavi gevinson on all-female psychodrama 'the bitter tears of petra von kant'

'I felt like I couldn’t move for a while.'

by Hannah Ongley
01 June 2017, 8:10pm

You can probably name at least one film you've been meaning to watch for so long that there's no longer any immediate incentive to. For Tavi Gevinson, it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder's sadomasochistic psychodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) — an exploration of female obsession and tortured romance that she was first alerted to by a friend, Hilton Als. The plot involves a love triangle between an arrogant fashion designer, her hopelessly devoted maid, and an ingenuous wannabe model. There are no male characters. It's shot entirely in von Kant's lavish boudoir using an extended single-camera technique.

"I think it was when I read [Als's] book White Girls, and in the first essay it's like, 90 pages about friendships and relationships where you're like, 'Are we siblings or lovers or best friends?'" Tavi recalled last night after finally watching Fassbinder's exquisite, claustrophobic opus as part of Quad Cinema's "First Encounters" series. She was also prevailed on by a second friend/superfan — you can't always rely solely on The New Yorker's Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critics — who raved about Petra von Kant's decadent costumes: "You'll see it and you'll just understand where every fashion designer who you like got their ideas."

Her thoughts after seeing the film? "I felt like I couldn't move for a while." Petra von Kant is visually stunning; a two-hour advertisement for shag carpets, gilded wall murals, and elaborate evening attire. (Tavi, dressed in a Prada dust coat trimmed with peach feather sleeves that looked swiped straight from the film's wardrobe department, was reminded of Alessandro Michele and Sonia Rykiel). But Petra von Kant is equally striking in what it lacks. Songs that play for so long it's almost awkward are followed by soundtrack-less stretches of complete silence. They make each measured barbed one-liner feel sharper than the one preceding it.

"I felt very aware of my own face and how I looked watching it, because [lead actress Margit Carstensen is] so composed and poised and graceful," said Tavi, noting the sedated cadence and lack of backing tracks. "It ends up feeling like being in a room with blackout curtains, especially the way the camera lands on [the maligned maid] Marlene... It feels like the film was literally shot in two hours." Fun fact, courtesy of Quad's programming director, C. Mason Wells: Fassbinder wrote the whole script on a plane from L.A. to Berlin, and it was shot in just 10 days.

Tavi also talked about her own acting in relation to that of Fassbinder's women. "I would hope that [Carstensen's performance] would somehow get filtered through my unconscious and influence me in some positive way, but I wasn't really thinking about it. I'm very interested in how something can seem so poised and purposeful, but also feel like it's happening in that moment. I just felt struck by that." She noted similarities between Carstensen in Petra von Kant and Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H., which also explores self-destructive obsession. Lastly, remembering the eerily repositioned mannequins that litter von Kant's apartment, always smiling the same perfectly omniscient little grins, Tavi spoke like a true OG authority on Resting Bitch Face. "People smiling can be so grotesque and sinister." 


Text Hannah Ongley
Images via YouTube

tavi gevinson
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Hilton Als
the bitter tears of petra von kant