Minimalist, austere, cruel yet astonishingly stunning, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a chamber drama at its finest. Fassbinder once said, “I don’t believe that melodramatic feelings are laughable—they should be taken absolutely seriously.” And although filled with melodramatic emotions and histrionics, the film still echoes the emotions of the confounding nature of being consumed by another. Unfolding in five elongated scenes, we meet Petra, a successful semi-alcoholic fashion designer. She is frail and pale, skeletally thin. There’s an erotic Egon Schiele-like pain to her boney frame, and although she never leaves her bedroom, she dons a multitude of wigs and lavish ensembles that bring her to life. These outfits and costumes act as a facade to her decaying form. Without them, as we see her in the opening of the film—wearing just a white sleeping dress, hair held back without a stitch of makeup—she is the physical manifestation of angst, longing, and pain.
Let’s start with the look of Songs from the Second Floor—it’s unusually visual, very rich and detailed.
I felt that film-making generally didn’t reach the level you could find in painting or literature or music. It was for one-time use only, and more and more, the movies were losing their visual power—they were concentrating on the plot only. Especially compared to the 1950s, when I was a student. It was that period when the so-called serious art movie came out, all over the world: we had the East European waves, Kurosawa, Bergman, English realism. That’s why I started wanting to be a film director myself. It wasn’t only the plot that was interesting; it was the touch, the feeling, something visually rich.
The way you use long, single-shot scenes without cuts—and don’t move the camera within them—is particularly unusual these days.
Normally when you see a film with many cuts, it’s to avoid problems, because of lack of money, patience, talent. If you don’t move the camera and don’t cut, you have to enrich the picture in deep focus—that’s what you have. I think a good theoretical writer on film is Andre Bazin—he preferred deep focus. I do too. When you look at the history of paintings, they’re in deep focus all the time, and that makes you very curious, and you become an active spectator.
You once said that where a person lives tends to affect them. Los Angeles is a very particular, peculiar environment. What is it about this city that appeals to you?
Number one, the intense light. Also the different feelings in the air. But like every place it’s always changing. And it takes longer to appreciate L.A. than a lot of cities, because it’s so spread out, and every area has its own mood. What I really like about it is, from time to time, if you drive around – especially at night – you can get a little gust of wind of the great days of the silver screen. All there in, like, living memory. It just makes you wish that you’d lived in those times. I think that if you could go back, that’s the one place that you want to go back to. Maybe they didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it was an incredible place to be at the beginning of cinema. – David Lynch
"I made the film to give all these actions that are typically devalued a life on film. I absolutely had Delphine in mind when I wrote it. I felt that the extraordinary thing was that she was not this character at all. She was quite ‘the lady.’ If we saw someone making beds and doing dishes whom we normally see do these things, we wouldn’t really see that person, just like men are blind to their wives doing dishes. So it had to be someone we didn’t usually see do the dishes. So Delphine was perfect, because it suddenly became visible."
"In movies, what’s supposed to be an effective image, an important image, are crimes, car chases, etc. Not a woman, shown from the back, doing dishes. But that that is on the same level as the murder, in fact, I think its much more dramatic. I think that when she does that (bangs a glass on the table) and you really feel that maybe the milk will spill, that’s as dramatic as the murder.”
"People were a little bit angry at me because of the murder at the end of Jeanne Dielman. She does it and then she sits for seven minutes. And then you don’t understand her. You will never. I hope you never will—that’s the strength of the film. You will never know what is happening in her mind and in her heart. I don’t know either. It’s the secret of Delphine Seyrig, not the character she’s playing. It’s not Jeanne Dielman’s secret, it’s Delphine’s secret.” — Chantal Akerman
I’ve never had a friend in my life who wanted to see a magic trick, you know. I don’t know anybody who wants to see a magic trick. So I do it professionally; it’s the only way I get to perform.
I went once to a birthday party for [MGM boss] Louis B. Mayer with a rabbit in my pocket which I was going to take out of his hat. On came Judy Garland and Danny Kaye and Danny Thomas and everybody you ever heard of and then Al Jolson sang for two hours and my rabbit was peeing all over me, you know. And the dawn was starting to rise over the Hillcrest Country Club as we said goodnight to Louis B. Mayer and nobody’d asked me to do a magic trick. So the rabbit and I went home.
For me, it’s so beautiful to think about these pictures and sounds flowing together in time and in sequence, making something that can be done only through cinema. Its not just words or music—it’s a whole range of elements coming together and making something that didn’t exist before. It’s telling stories. It’s devising a world, an experience, that people cannot have unless they see that film.