Stranded in the Jungle--1

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

EMBLEM. It's a scene from Fassbinder's 1972 film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant--a scene that has haunted me for years. It's the aftermath of a tantrum. Petra von Kant has been drinking heavily, crying and yelling and screaming and cursing, smashing glasses against the wall. Her lover, Karin, has left her, and the agony is unbearable. But now it's all over. Petra lies on the floor, shattered and exhausted, her voice reduced to a murmur: "It just takes a few pills, mama. You wash them down with water and you sleep. It's so nice to sleep, mama. I haven't been able to sleep for so long. Oh, I want to sleep, to have a long, long, long sleep." She lapses into silence; the scene is over, but the camera lingers. It captures the whole room, in deep focus, shooting from a very low angle. The actors form a motionless tableau. Petra's quiescent form lies at the center, sunk into the white carpet. In the extreme foreground, at the right edge of the screen, we see the shoe and left leg of Petra's badgering mother. In the middle distance, just behind Petra, her daughter is kneeling towards her. Petra's supposed best friend, the slyly malicious Sidonie, stands slightly behind and to the left. On the back wall of the room, there's a full-size reproduction of a painting by Poussin, showing nude bodies writhing in oblivious ecstasy. Way in back at the left, this wall gives way to a corridor. Here the servant Marlene stands, staring as usual with a ferocious intensity. She slavishly abases herself throughout the film, silently attending to Petra's every whim; this avid gaze is her sole recompense. Of the film's characters, only the faithless Karin is missing; and rightly so, since everything turns on her absence. The camera lingers; each character has assumed her definitive place and posture. It's as if the weight and meaning of the whole narrative had crystallized into this one shot. We've passed the event horizon, and entered a black hole. Nothing more can ever happen. Petra has reached the ne plus ultra of abjection. The camera lingers; a Verdi aria swells up on the soundtrack. This is the only music in the entire film that isn't played by the characters themselves. It's Alfredo's declaration of love to Violetta, "Di quell' amor," in the first act of La Traviata. The reference is all too ironically apt. Alfredo is urging the claims of his grand passion, against the sterile hedonism of Violetta's daily routine. Petra, too, has willed herself into a state of romantic infatuation. Her love for Karin is entirely a projection, desperately adopted to stave off boredom. And now she is paying the price for her performance. Every deep emotion starts out as a role you play; act one out for a while, and soon enough you will really feel it. The model you have idly imitated penetrates your very being. And so there's more to the use of opera here than just a cheap irony. The aria makes everything seem bigger and realer than life. It magnifies and distances Petra's feelings: intensifying them, but placing them in a sphere we cannot reach. The space and time of opera are not our space and time. There's something inhuman or superhuman about them. Petra's operatic despair marks a point of no return. She becomes a living statue, part of a tableau vivant. She is turned into stone, as her name itself perhaps implies. Or else into plastic, like the mannequins strewn about her apartment. It's useless to imagine that things will be any different tomorrow. Petra's very hysteria is embalmed and fossilized, given the dimensions of monumental kitsch. But wasn't this implicit right from the beginning? Start to finish, the film is composed of empty postures and gestures. Its sole setting is Petra's overdecorated apartment, whose elegantly vulgar furnishings scream of claustrophobic luxuriousness. And Petra herself is no different. Her physical motions and facial expressions are bombastically inflated. Her trite words are woefully inadequate to the emotions they seek to convey. This inadequacy is what makes them markers of true feeling. Cliches and stereotypes should be cherished, for they call attention to their own failure to convey what they mean. They are the only suitable language for emotions that can't be put into words. They indicate by their impotence what they cannot express directly. Every deep feeling is thus a wax museum statue of itself. Nothing is more excessive than banality, as drag queens know. No wonder the female actors in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant often give the impression of really being gay men in drag. It's because this film is so campy that it's also so emotionally compelling. Let it serve here as an emblem, an allegory of suspended desire. It's not loss, exactly, but something more uncomfortable. Being stranded in the middle, perhaps, unable to advance or retreat, neither here nor there.

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