‘Peter von Kant’ review: Ozon revisits Fassbinder’s mad love

Back-to-back viewings of German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s semi-autobiographical 1972 classic, “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant,” and acclaimed French filmmaker François Ozon’s pared-down, gender-switched remake, “Peter Von Kant,” offers a stark and somewhat disappointing contrast. The original, though a bit campy and melodramatic, remains a hypnotically powerful, deeply absorbing tale of narcissism, cruelty, sadomasochism and same-sex obsession, while the new version offers a more playful, yet far less profound take on its uniquely provocative (for its time), queer-centric source material.

Although set 50 years ago, writer-director Ozon’s kicky homage brings less modern-day insight and perspective to the overheated, overhauled proceedings than might be expected — or at least desired — of the out gay filmmaker. Specific as Ozon’s approach here may be (nothing feels accidental or arbitrary), his lovingly made curio, which often borrows verbatim from its predecessor, comes off a bit tired and trifling.

Where the Bergman-esque “Petra” followed a self-centered female fashion designer’s fascination with a younger model, the redo finds successful filmmaker Peter (Fassbinder proxy Denis Ménochet) instantly besotted upon meeting 23-year-old Amir (Khalil Gharbia), the fetching acquaintance of Peter’s glamorous, singer-actress friend, Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani). This all unfolds under the ever-watchful eyes of Karl (Stéfan Crépon), Peter’s slender, slithery, silently devoted assistant stuck in a kind of master-slave relationship with his tempestuous, orders-barking boss. (This thread, which goes largely unraveled, might have made for a more interesting “A” story in this iteration.)

A second, Champagne-and-shrimp-fueled encounter between Peter and Amir cements what becomes both a romantic and professional pairing as Peter paves the way for Amir’s acting career. What could go wrong?

Well, lots, as a nine-month jump in time finds Amir — now a movie star — bored, antsy, horribly spoiled and unable to match the possessive Peter’s desperate proclamations of love. The dynamic reversal is as pathetic and predictable as it is unpleasant to behold (and somehow worked more credibly — and grippingly — in “Petra”).

It’s all downhill from there, including the excessive Peter’s boozy, plate-throwing, 40th-birthday-party meltdown in the presence of Sidonie, his doting mother (Hanna Schygulla, who played the love object in “Petra”) and forgiving teen daughter (Aminthe Audiard). A few bitter tears are shed, but there’s ultimately a lack of authentic emotion and dimension to the whole enterprise. (Again, maybe the point. And yet.)

One can’t fault the eclectic Ozon (“Under the Sand,” “8 Women,” “Swimming Pool”) for the reverent care he’s taken in mounting and maneuvering the film and for the committed performances he’s drawn, especially from a powerhouse Ménochet, a grand and gorgeous Adjani and the craftily creepy Crépon. You’d like to watch this group again in something more wholly compelling and accessible.

Like its stage-inspired predecessor, the movie takes place almost entirely within the title character’s apartment. (Ozon mined another Fassbinder play, “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” for a 2000 film.) If the digs here, switched from Bremen to Cologne, Germany, are more spacious than in “Petra,” the film doesn’t escape its theatrical roots (which also proved more effective in the original); few attempts are made to open up the action. The result is sometimes as claustrophobic and ill-conceived as Peter’s mad love for his devious boy toy.

‘Peter Von Kant’

In French and German with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 2, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Glendale

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