Making a movie that lives up to the life and work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder feels like an impossible task. The German filmmaker, after all, was so inimitably himself while plundering so much artistry around him, that to try to pin him down seems futile. A hagiography would be insufferable. A parody would be unbearable. It explains why filmmaker Oskar Roehler (working with a script by Klaus Richter), as if following Fassbinder’s own mantra (“You have to go where it hurts. I always go where it hurts. In life and in films.”) aims to find an elusive middle ground.
Enfant Terrible is, by all intents and purposes, a biopic of the filmmaker behind The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fox and His Friends and The Marriage of Maria Braun, among others. And Roehler’s title very much sets the stage for how film and audiences, and even fans alike, tend to understand Fassbinder. But “enfant terrible” can’t help but sound like it’s surrounded by inverted commas. There is a lurid cheekiness running through the film that keeps the director’s brazen sense of humour alive. As the production design (by Roehler himself) makes clear, this is a film wholly uninterested in veracity. Those hand-painted backdrops aim for the kind of stagey-but-cinematic ambience that’s all too familiar to Fassbinder acolytes.
It’s in a theatre where we first meet the soon-to-become filmmaker, played by Oliver Masucci. Already intent on breaking theatre apart from within, he refuses to let his actors play it natural. He urges them instead into stilted delivery and staid blocking. He aims to unnerve; he wants his audience to react. It’s why he suggests giving seated audience members tomatoes, and later hoses them down for the fun of it. In true Brechtian and Artaudian form, he knows that can’t be achieved if you hew to reality. Roehler follows suit.
With Masucci’s paunch-heavy Fassbinder at its centre, Enfant Terrible is a précis on the filmmaker’s road to infamy. The film traces his move from the stage to the screen as well as his torrid affairs with some of his leading men. The way they’re intertwined is the conviction that Fassbinder’s sadism is what characterized his every interaction — be it with a friend during rehearsal or a lover in bed. Given that, as Rainer says in the film, he turned to cinema because that was the only place he could tell stories of those who dream and have their dreams shattered (“Marriage is dishonest and destructive — like all of you; all my movies are about that,” he adds later), it’s fitting Roehler aims for a similar sensibility here.
Finding a sweet spot between behind-the-scenes drama and impressionistic portrait of an artist, Enfant Terrible is, perhaps, too much. Bouncing from set to set, from lover to lover, from outburst to outburst (and later, from Cannes to Cannes), the film aptly navigates its tonal shifts. In Roehler’s hands, the film is at times a subdued melodrama, at others a lustful queer erotic film; here an artist’s manifesto, there a soured meditation on Hollywood’s influence on global cinema, and often many of them in any given scene. Were it not for Masucci’s electrifying performance, you’d get lost in the film’s various ebbs and flows. Then again, any film that gives you a moment as captivating as Fassbinder dancing by himself at a bar, glasses on, leopard print suit on as preamble to a sad, introspective sex scene (“You’re so beautiful and you make me so horny,” he bemoans while being fucked by a beautiful man eager to please him), can’t be faulted too much.
At a time when there’s an entire genre of tortured (and torturing) geniuses, Roehler’s film wants to constantly play up such an approach and subvert it at every turn. What emerges is a truly unique type of biopic that feels quite insular to the uninitiated but which brims with playful furor for those who come armed with an understanding of who Fassbinder was and what he’s come to represent.
Enfant Terrible is now playing in virtual cinemas and will be available on VOD and DVD on June 15, 2021.