“Discipline’s okay as long as you’re having fun.”
A successful, recently divorced fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) falls for a lovely young model (Hanna Schygulla) and is devastated to learn she’s been unfaithful to her.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Downward Spiral
- German Films
- Obsessive Love
- Play Adaptations
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder Films
Your reaction to this formative entry in iconic director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s oeuvre will depend largely on two factors: first, how devoted you are to joining Fassbinder on each of his cinematic journeys into the realm of sado-masochistic power dynamics (the central concern of his astonishingly rich career, cut short by a drug overdose when he was just 37 years old), and second, how much tolerance you have for the film’s title character — an unabashedly self-absorbed, narcissistic, petulant fashion designer whose “bitter tears” are caused by her failure to retain ultimate power over all those in her midst. Within the film’s fascinating first half hour, we witness Petra (Carstensen gives an unforgettable leading performance) boldly mistreating her meek, ghostly assistant (Irm Hermann), dissembling to her mother on the phone, avoiding making a payment to Joseph Mankiewicz (!), and generally lolling around in her bedroom before slowly getting dressed and making herself up for the day. When Petra is introduced to an aspiring model named Karin (Schygulla), the film rapidly shifts into a new realm, as Petra’s obsessive love for Karin soon colors her entire existence.
Based upon Fassbinder’s own play, Bitter Tears very much retains its theatrical origins: it’s neatly divided into “acts”, and all takes place within the strategically claustrophobic quarters of Petra’s apartment. This works just fine throughout the first “act”, when viewers are sure to be intrigued (if nothing else) by the direction Fassbinder is taking us in. But by the time the story’s central thesis is finally established — that Petra’s obsession with “owning” Karin will be her undoing — we’ve become a little weary of the film’s slow pacing and patently artificial staging. Fassbinder constructs his film as an elaborate homage to Douglas Sirk’s colorful mid-century melodramas, with a decidedly perverse bent: his lead characters (all female) inhabit a world of outlandishly baroque outfits (complete with wigs and garish make-up) and surreal sets populated by strategically framed female mannequins and an over-sized reproduction of Nicolas Poussin’s 1629 painting “Midas and Bacchus” dominating one of the walls of Petra’s home. It’s all visually arresting, but eventually not compelling enough to keep us invested in watching “poor” Petra’s downward spiral. With that said, Bitter Tears is the kind of dense, wordy film that lends itself to academic deconstruction — so if you’re up for this type of intellectual challenge, definitely check it Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critical essay.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Margit Carstensen as Petra von Kant
- Visually arresting sets and costumes
No, though Fassbinder completists will certainly want to visit it. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)