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‘Peter von Kant’ Review: Francois Ozon Takes on Fassbinder in an Experimental Gender-Swapped Drama

Berlin: France's most prolific contemporary filmmaker offers up a playful but reverent remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant."

“Peter von Kant”

The breath of life and beating heart at the center of countless, Russian nesting doll layers of artifice and art-house reference, actor Denis Menochet doesn’t just anchor “Peter von Kant,” he makes the Francois Ozon project a film. Because without its venerable lead, this twenty-first feature from France’s most prolific modern director might be something of a lark — a playful but reverent experiment that takes a gender-swapped remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” and wrangles it into a deep-in-the-weeds pseudo-biopic of the German filmmaker himself.

In some ways a sort of spiritual — if admittedly much less audacious — cousin to Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” “Peter von Kant” looks to explore an artist through the prism of his own creations, pulling up the script to Fassbinder’s 1972 film (itself adapted from an earlier play) and Ctrl+H-ing each character with analogues for the director and those in his orbit. And so, in this telling, Peter von Kant is a hard-partying, West German director at the top of his craft and high off his gourd in swinging 1972. Sharing an ornate Cologne apartment and light dom/sub relationship with his unspeaking assistant Karl (Stefan Crepon, of “Lupin”), Peter never once takes a whiff of fresh air. Staying faithful to the original template, the film stays fixed in the luxurious abode as a series of characters waltz in and out.

Nursing a broken heart — and, given his prodigious booze intake, no doubt a killer hangover — Peter welcomes his one-time muse Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani) in act one, seduces and then repels his new lover/muse Amir (Khalil Ben Gharbia) in acts two and three, and unloads on his family in an alcohol fueled frenzy in act four. Each segment comes rife with the requisite nods and callbacks, giving Fass-heads that little Aha! kick, should they recognize the pitch of “The Marriage of Maria Braun” in von Kant’s description of his latest film or when they notice that the Amir character composites biographical details of one Fassbinder lover with the surname of another. Or, say, when “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” star Hanna Schygulla jumps into the fray, this time playing the lead’s mother.

Of course it’s not all knowing winks for those in the know. After the more meat-and-potatoes compositions of last year’s “Everything Went Fine,” Ozon allows himself to flex his more visually playful side, bathing nearly every frame in eye-popping primary colors and getting even cheekier with Menochet’s various costumes, which run the gamut from a cocaine-white suit to a pair of lederhosen to a bear-skin rug with nothing underneath. In Ozon’s hands, the fixed setting also becomes a tool to explore the creative process. As part of his household tasks, the unspeaking Karl spends most of his time seated at a typewriter or behind a manual editing bay, doing the nuts-and-bolts, physical work of film craft while Peter — nearly always drunk and financially flush — reaps the material benefits and creature comforts that success in the film world can offer.

You could call Peter and Karl two sides of the same coin — portrait of the artist as a worker and a lush — and those aren’t the only two characters given that treatment. Always looming in the background, a large photo of Sidonie pays narrative dividends later on, once Amir joins Peter in life and bed. Whether by luck of casting or product of long-hours in the make-up chair, Ozon’s camera makes ready comparison between newcomer Khalil Ben Gharbia and the iconic Isabelle Adjani, using the latter’s wall-sized portrait to point out the many ways the actors’ facial features resemble one another. You could say Peter has a type.

That type, of course, is ingénue. As Peter falls head over heels, the director seems as much infatuated with the young man’s beauty as with the potential such beauty holds — particularly in his own hands. For all his dalliances with men and women, Peter’s primary turn-on seems to be the power he holds as a director. And if that characterization might ring true in the abstract, it also speaks to a limitation in this particular script, which never ventures beyond its narrow frame and set of references. But Menochet pushes further.

Playing his character as a blustery mix of John Falstaff and Franz Biberkopf, Menochet delivers career-best work, taking a (self-referential) film full of slight and rather naval-gazy pleasures and leaving his mark on every single frame. From his breakout role in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” to his turn as an abuse victim in Ozon’s “By the Grace of God,” Menochet has often played beleaguered types; his stock-and-trade the burly giant broken by even stronger forces. In this case he faces off with his most pernicious foil to date — that of desire.

Subsuming the push and pull power dynamic into his very performance, Menochet plays a man bested by his own appetites, a swindler whose greatest mark is himself. Peter is a man who should know better, who has no doubt been down this path before. But when the actor’s eyes light up at the sight of his new obsession, when his bulldog face takes on a childlike glow, who else is there to stop him? And when Peter and Amir’s relationship takes its inventible, acrid turn, the film knows enough to step back, to give the lead the space to smoke and snort and sing and dance and positively wallow in the self-pity he carefully staged for himself. He does so with theatrical grace, delivering lines that somehow mix jealousy, desire, pride and insecurity into the span of a single sentence.

“In your work you pretend to side with the weak,” Adjani tells Menochet towards the end of the film. “But in life you only care about survival of the strongest.” At its best, “Peter von Kant” collapses that distinction.

Grade: B

“Peter von Kant” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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