Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) awakes in her distinctively decorated apartment to be waited on hand and foot as usual by her personal assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann). Petra is a highly successful fashion designer who has recently divorced her husband, a union that produced a daughter, Gaby (Eva Mattes), but now is growing rather complacent in her professional and social lives. As she rouses herself this morning, she complains to the ever-silent Marlene about her nightmares, then sips on her orange juice as she takes a call from her mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey) who is informing her that she's off to Miami for six months, but Petra is only interested in whatever pertains to herself...
Writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder found his inspiration for The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, or Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant if you spoke German, from his play, which in turn had been based on an unhappy love affair; interestingly there was a dedication to he who was Marlene (note the ending) rather than he who was Karin in the opening credits. Who was Karin? She's the one who shakes up the title character's world, and not necessarily for the better as Petra is a controlling sort, so when she finds someone she thought she could keep under her thumb only to discover that just wasn't the case, she spends the latter half of the movie gradually in self-destruct mode.
This was the kind of Fassbinder effort to produce miles of analysis at the time, and still does to an extent though he's far more of a cult property now than he ever was in his heyday when he was churning out a plethora of films as if there was no tomorrow (which there wasn't for him: he was dead at thirty-seven years of age). You could have advised him to go for quality rather than quantity yet it's doubtful he would have listened, so compulsive was his artistic urge, but does that mean we were intended to see Petra as his screen surrogate, or was he playing games with those who would pore over his canon seeking clues to what he was up to? If anything, there was a tribute to the Hollywood melodrama of the Golden Age here, a common theme for him.
So while you could discern a spot of Ingmar Bergman's suffering women in The Bitter Tears, you could just as easily say well, it's patently Sunset Boulevard with Petra as Norma Desmond only set in the fashion industry and confined to one room, and either reading would be valid, it was both wierdly vague and specific at the same time. Karin was played by Hanna Schygulla in an Ann Baxter in All About Eve manner, if Eve had been a bisexual who carries on an affair with Bette Davis's Margo Channing to take advantage rather than pick her bones in a professional capacity, a bit of a stretch, but one which works out fairly well for the Fassbinder film. Or at least it does for a while, for once you can see where this is going, which is not too difficult, it did begin to drag.
Maybe it's because we never see Petra at her full strength, some have described her as a vampire of a woman, feeding on those around her but in this case never wholly sated and eventually starved of the affection she craves but cannot return without strings attached. As she glides around the ornately-decorated set with its shag pile carpet, nude painting on the wall and almost parodic undressed showroom dummies littered around the corners, she finds her powers failing until all she has left are sympathetic but useless folks offering empty kindnesses since Petra finally met her match and came off the worst. There were moments of bleak humour, as when Petra needles Karin about where she was the previous night and is informed eventually that she was out with "a big black man with a big black dick!" (probably sounds funnier in German), but for the most part this was like watching a clockwork toy winding down to a halt. Whether we were supposed to feel sorry for Petra or not, the likelihood was that you'd be glad to be out of her suffocating world once two hours were up.