Words: Jamie Tabberer
For film lovers uninitiated with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German New Wave director known for his bisexual love affairs and toxic, bullying behaviour, a new film recounting his life poses a difficult question. To dive into his substantial filmography, or to file it as ‘problematic’ and never look back?
(For the former, the film’s inclusion at this month’s BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival is convenient: BFI Player boasts an extensive Fassbinder collection.)
For its own merits, Enfant Terrible eschews boring biopic conventions for an abstract dramatisation that pushes the limits of eccentricity. The negligible, play-like set - 'Cannes' handwritten on a wall, for instance - is almost laughable until you acclimatise to its charms, à la Lars Von Triers’ Dogville and Fassbinder's own oeuvre. Meanwhile, detailed explorations of Fassbinder’s shocking cruelty will be too stylised for some tastes, as per recreations of confounding, decontextualised content from some of his films.
This tension is epitomised in Oliver Masucci’s central performance, which is slick and blackly comic. The 52-year-old is an outlandish casting choice from the off; Fassbinder died of a drugs overdose at 37.
The usually chiselled and clean-cut actor has gained weight and undergone an extreme makeunder for the role - but no matter how greasy the hair, puffy and pallid the complexion or proudly-hanging the gut, his exquisite beauty shines through. This sublime grotesqueness, an effect only elevated by trashy leather and leopard print looks, draws you into the character’s decay almost involuntarily.
The intensity and absurdity of Masucci’s performance echoes through Fassbinder’s inner circle of entertaining caricatures, with Hary Prinz’s slippery hanger-on Kurt Raab a highlight - all ill-fitting suits, overeager facial expressions and unnatural giggle.
As a whole, though, Fassbinder’s entourage seem numb, spending inordinate amounts of time sitting around tables eating, drinking, chain-smoking, taking drugs but seldom having fun. They’re forever awaiting Fassbinder’s next eruption, like a miserable family to an abusive father, or an off-duty circus to a tyrannical ringleader. That more of these people (read: victims of abuse) aren’t handled with sympathy feels curiously out of step with current climes, albeit some of Fassbinder’s lovers are treated sensitively.
A slog at two hours and 14 minutes, Enfant Terrible is livened up by striking visuals and intoxicating lighting: think dank shadows offset with neon glow, and facial outlines and stray hairs cast pink and blue as if in a disco with a frozen rotosphere.
Overall, given its serious themes, this reviewer might have preferred a dose of realism in Enfant Terrible. But director Oskar Roehler is clearly committed to honouring Fassbinder's unconventional style, and with his own provocative stamp to boot. Besides, it takes pluck to direct a movie about another director - not least one this iconic. An icky, challenging yet strangely fascinating film. 3/5