Richard Combs

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

On the face of it, the world of Petra von Kant—a supremely stylised region where the rules of play, in decor as in passion, are dictated by the high-fashion, high-camp predilections of its decadent queen—shares very little with the wry social comedy of Fear Eats the Soul…. But there is an odd complementary quality about the two films, the suggestion of a mirror reflection in the way the areas of stylisation are inverted, and a clearly continuing line in the way the form and mannerisms of Hollywood melodrama are worked into the texts. Where Fear Eats the Soul tells, broadly, a mundane tale of love crushed by social prejudice and repression, and lends to the affair between the ageing char and the hapless immigrant both a kind of dignity and a sense of the solid network of social interferences and cultural differences through the applied gravity of its style, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is, initially, all style, the pleasure dome-apartment of the heroine a theatrical forum for her theorising on life and love, until the mundane matters of doubt, jealousy and betrayal gradually trickle in to give the lie to the whole baroque edifice. Both films are explicitly symbolic in structure…. [The] subject of the film might almost be the steady accumulation and then the gradual dismantling of Petra's style…. Fassbinder choreographs the comic-tragic course of Petra's mauvaise foi with a sureness only occasionally blemished by a dead moment or an awkward movement from his players, and achieves a greater self-sufficiency of style than in Fear Eats the Soul. In this etiolated atmosphere, props and lighting assume a rich and perverse significance…. Hollywood idioms percolate the emotional tone of the film, not only in the Sternberg lighting but in Petra's early dictation of a letter to a designer called Mankiewicz ("Mankiewicz plus Brecht" was the Image et Son tag for Petra), hinting at the similarly problematic aspects of love and commitment in Letter to Three Wives. And like the paintings scattered through Fear Eats the Soul, both identifying and satirising their milieux, a principal icon here is the enormous mural covering one wall, with its classical nudes in easy, bacchanalian love-play mockingly overlooking the attenuated games of Petra's ménage, but also collaborating with the androgynous (not to say drag) appearance of some of the players to soften the strictly lesbian outlines of the relationships and intimate some universal experiences of passion unrequited or simply too idiosyncratic to be long sustained. (p. 100)

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Richard Combs, "Feature Films: 'Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant' ('The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1975), Vol. 42, No. 496, May, 1975, pp. 99-100.

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