François Ozon made a breakthrough in his film-making career in 2000 with an adaptation of an unproduced stage play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Water Drops on Burning Rocks. Now, to open this year’s Berlin film festival, he has returned to the dark master of New German Cinema with a gender-switched version of Fassbinder’s 1972 movie The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, that strange, angular, claustrophobic drama in which only women appear on screen.
Fassbinder’s film is set entirely in the apartment of a fashion designer who has an emotionally abusive relationship with her live-in assistant, and then conceives a mad and despairing love for a beautiful young woman who openly cheats on her. Ozon makes some of these characters men, but only some of them. We have to hope he doesn’t get the kind of grief that Paul Feig got for his all-female Ghostbusters, from Fassbinder fans claiming he has trashed their childhoods.
Ozon has removed the bitter tears from the title and also the film itself. For all the histrionics, this is a lot more genial, campy and comic than Fassbinder’s gaunt ordeal. And that is down to it being (mostly) male. The female fashionista is now a male movie director, Peter von Kant, boisterously played by Denis Ménochet – with hints that he’s sort of supposed to be Fassbinder himself, though Fassbinder was a lot tougher and more unsentimental than this guy.
Peter has a deadpan houseboy-slash-amanuensis called Karl (Stefan Crepon) who hilariously (as opposed to tragically or erotically) is the intimate witness to all the passionate confrontations between Peter and his lover. Petra’s bitchy female frenemy from the first film is still female: Sidonie, played by Isabelle Adjani. Also still female is Peter’s teen daughter, home from boarding school, played by Aminthe Audiard (grandniece of Jacques). Her pert presence is what makes this (like Water Drops on Burning Rocks) resemble something by Noël Coward. Peter’s beautiful, duplicitous lover Amin is played by Khalil Ben Gharbia and Hanna Schygulla, who played the lover role in 1972, has been brought back to play Peter’s mother.
The dynamics are definitely different now that there are both men and women on the screen: it is less airless and crazed, although just as theatrical and artificial. Ozon often gives his characters stagey entrances by framing them self-consciously in a doorway. Ozon’s chief coup is making Peter a film director, meaning Peter can give Amin a screen test then and there in his apartment, during which he asks Amin about his parents’ tragic death as the camera is rolling and responds with the intensity – part sadistic, part empathetic – of the killer in Peeping Tom. Both Ménochet and Gharbia are very good in this scene.
Yet there is something lighter, almost flippant and French-farcical about this new Von Kant: a man brought low by l’amour, inviting from the audience hardly more than a worldly, sympathetic shrug.
• Peter von Kant screened at the Berlin film festival; it is released on 23 December on Curzon Home Cinema, and on 30 December in cinemas.