Review | ‘Peter von Kant’ reimagines Fassbinder’s classic. What’s the point?


(2 stars)

If the title of the film “Peter von Kant” sounds vaguely familiar, then: A) You’re probably old enough to know the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died of a drug overdose in 1982; and B) You’re not mistaken that the new movie is a gender-swapping riff on the German director’s acclaimed “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” Fassbinder’s 1972 melodrama, which revolved around the erotic obsession of the titular fashion designer for an ambitious female model — an infatuation made all the more pitiable by Petra’s abusive treatment of her slavishly devoted (and probably hopelessly enamored) assistant, Marlene — is said to have been inspired by Fassbinder’s own life and relationships.

And so Petra becomes Peter (Denis Ménochet) here, a Cologne filmmaker who looks conspicuously like Fassbinder — and who dresses, smokes, drinks and does drugs like him. The 40-ish Peter falls in love with a callow, gold-digging actor named Amir (Khalil Gharbia), many years his junior, all the while issuing orders to his lovestruck underling, Karl (Stefan Crepon), in what might be called a thinly veiled portrait of the man who made the not-quite-so-thinly veiled self-portrait “Petra von Kant.”

The question is: Why bother?

Like “Petra,” “Peter” is kind of hilarious and kind of tragic. When the naive and uncultured Amir complains that he doesn’t know how to eat the crustaceans that have been prepared for him as part of an elaborate seafood dinner, Peter barks, “Karl, shell his shrimp!” Unsurprisingly, Peter and Amir’s affair ends badly, and, yes, in bitter tears — but the spinoff’s telling of it lacks the narrative verve and power of the original.

The fact that “Peter von Kant” comes from François Ozon, the French director known for his interest in the theme of gay relationships (“Summer of 85”), keeps things serious, but at times the new movie comes perilously close to caricature. Ménochet — like Fassbinder, beefy and unshaven — chews the scenery (along with the soapy script), without entirely digesting either of them. And the spaghetti-thin Crepon, who walks around with a pelvis-forward posture that suggests the upper half of his body is more camera-shy than the lower (and whose character remains, like “Petra’s” Marlene, entirely mute) is a walking, if never actually talking, spoof of subservience.

Most fans of the first film already know that its heroine was Fassbinder’s alter ego. So all of writer-director Ozon’s coyly layered references to the original film, including casting Hanna Schygulla as Peter’s mother, come across as gimmicky. (Schygulla, sometimes called Fassbinder’s muse, played the object of Petra’s lust in the original.)

There are pleasures to be had here, though it wouldn’t be accurate to call “Peter” fun, by any stretch of the imagination. At times this admiring but uninspired making-of movie feels like the cinematic equivalent of the Karl/Marlene character: fawning to the point of sycophancy.

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains crude language, sexual dialogue, sensuality, brief nudity, drug use and smoking. In French and German with subtitles. 85 minutes.

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