Peter von Kant: Man Alive, by David Bax
There’s a distinction to be made, for what it’s worth, that François Ozon’s new film, Peter von Kant, is not technically an adaption of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant but rather a new adaptation of Fassbinder’s original play, on which his own film is based. Whatever. In any case, both films betray their stagey roots by taking place almost entirely in a single location; in Fassbinder’s case, the apartment of a fashion designer and, in Ozon’s, that of a film director. Ozon does occasionally venture outside for a repeated exterior establishing shot to display the passage of time as snow piles up on the street. But the main difference is that the lead character has been switched from a woman to a man.
Ozon does plenty to keep the potential sameyness at bay, mostly by centering the exuberant performance of the fantastic Denis Ménochet in the lead role. Peter enjoys dropping the needle on records like the Walker Brothers’ “In My Room” and dancing around his home with the nearest available partner, be it his long-suffering assistant (Stefan Crepon), his oldest friend and sometimes star (Isabelle Adjani) or his newest paramour, an up and coming young actor (Khalil Ben Gharbia) he discovers and then seeks to more or less own.
Ménochet’s hangdog handsome face has been put to great use in films for years but Peter von Kant might be the best showcase yes for his entire physicality. He alternatively twirls and lounges in vibrant silk robes that are of a piece with the apartment’s overall decor, lush, soft and welcoming in its rainbow of brilliant hues.
It’s an enticing abode, a place more or less meant to trap people. Peter is the self-pitying spider at the center of his luxurious web, beckoning people toward him only to consume them entirely, conscripting them into the ongoing drama constantly being written by his own never-ending narcissism.
It’s both Ozon’s and Ménochet’s great trick that, despite all of this—despite how obviously dangerous Peter is to anyone who dares enter his orbit—we feel sorry for him. His suffering is of his own making, continually punishing himself as much as those around him for the ways in which they fail to live up to his idea of perfect devotion. But Peter von Kant does what movies ought to, allowing us to see the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s nothing new to cinema or to the older art forms from which it evolved. Which brings us back to the stage, where this all started. No matter the director or the gender of the lead role, this is a perfect example of a tragedy.