Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a cornerstone of the New German and queer cinemas. In many respects, it hasn’t dated well.
Fassbinder’s pacing is glacial. Every moment between actors is pregnant with sexual tension. The mise en scene is a suffocating riot of fur rugs, kitschy opulence, Poussin frescos and naked mannequins. The title character’s haute couture is kooky to the point of hilarious. The wigs? Don’t get me started on the wigs.
But before The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant was a film, it was a play, and this staging, directed by Shane Bosher using a 2007 translation by the British dramaturg David Tushingham, freshens up the scenario no end.
Played in a modern monochromatic warehouse setting designed by Georgia Hopkins with costumes to match (Daniel Learmont), we are better able to focus on what is timeless in the amour fou nurtured by the obsessed Petra (played by Sara Wiseman), a fashion designer, and Karin (Taylor Ferguson), the peripatetic working class girl she falls violently in love with and seduces with a promise of catwalk superstardom.
Class, sex and power were preoccupations of Fassbinder’s (a drama he habitually played out in personal relationships, sometimes with disastrous consequences) and so it is here. But Bosher’s production also amplifies the sense of generational divide between Wiseman’s Gen-X divorcee and Ferguson’s millennial, unwilling-to-be-pinned-down (be it sexually, geographically or financially) Karin.
Wiseman brings sharp-edged poise to the role of Petra and capably charts the rise of her anarchic passions. Her cathartic meltdown is spectacular.
Ferguson strikes a working balance between Karin’s naïveté and flippant cruelty, and in the silent role of Petra’s slavish personal assistant Marlene, Matilda Ridgway makes her dollishly stiff character vibrate with hurt and longing.
Eye-catching lighting from Alex Berlage punctuates the story with photoflash transitions. Sound designer Alistair Wallace creates an abrasive soundtrack and updates Petra’s misery songs playlist from the film’s The Platters and The Walker Brothers to Portishead to Martha Wainwright.
All up, a satisfying stylish production that keeps what is an All About Eve-ish melodrama at the edge of camp while maintaining some measure of emotional honesty and authenticity.