Wednesday, May 5, 2021

He took up all the air in every room


  “He had a strong smell about him. He smelled how he looked. Like a spotty rebel filled with angst.”
      I discovered this quote from actress Hanna Schygulla while browsing the Internet after watching Enfant Terrible, a feverish, swirling look at the career and personal life of the late German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
     Fassbinder makes a tempting movie subject. Aside from being a brilliant filmmaker, Fassbinder had an unfailing flair for the notorious. After lots of wild, dissolute living, Fassbinder died of a drug overdose in 1982. By then, he had made more than 40 feature films, a staggering number for a director who was only 37 when he died.
     I’ve seen Enfant Terrible described as a biopic. For me, that stretches the term, unless it’s possible to make a biopic about a person’s furious temperament. 
    Director Oskar Rohler and actor Oliver Masucci's introduce us to a Fassbinder who lends himself to a cascade of   descriptions: He was defiantly gay, quick-tempered, self-centered, rude, cruel, greedy when it came to cocaine and alcohol, and ferociously committed to making movies.
     Fassbinder’s work always made me think of writers I’ve known who are both smart and quick, the ones who can be good without the nagging indecision that slows the rest of us. 
     Rohler’s ultra-theatrical approach assumes familiarity with Fassbinder’s work and his artistry. It's a movie for Fassbinder aficionados, and full appreciation requires some knowledge of the roiling cultural scene that dominated Germany during the days when the New German cinema was beginning to stamp (and sometimes stomp) its presence on global cinema consciousness.
     Put another way, if Enfant Terrible were a college course, it would require prerequisites. Those steeped in Fassbinder’s work will recognize the names of some of Fassbinder's regular actors or the characters meant to represent them. Schygulla, for example, isn’t named. 
     The movie also watches Fassbinder at work on various of his movies.
     Filmed on sets and built around Masucci's necessarily out-sized performance, Enfant Terrible asks us to spend a couple of hours with a mostly unpleasant companion as it tumbles through Fassbinder’s career, which included the suicidal deaths of two lovers. 
    The key to Masucci's portrayal of Fassbinder lies in its inescapable physicality, an increasingly ample belly, a crop of uncombed hair, a drooping mustache, and a face that someone once described as looking more “Mongolian” than German. 
  Known for the Netflix series Dark and for playing Hitler in 2015's Look Who's Back, Masucci sports a look that might have inspired Al Pacino’s costume in the much-maligned Cruising, a 1980 movie about gay leather culture. 
    At times, Fassbinder’s behavior seems entirely boorish, which is why Schygulla’s description to a Guardian reporter stopped me.
   Enfant Terrible may not be a great or even a good movie. There’s only so much abusive behavior that viewers can tolerate without feeling that they, too, are being abused. And the characterization of Fassbinder doesn’t so much evolve, as spread like an indelible stain.
    But Enfant Terrible does capture something essential about Fassbinder. It makes you feel exactly what Schygulla had in mind, the smell of the man.

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