Rainer Werner Fassbinder's lesbian drama has a primitive simplicity to it fitting its spartan production. The story takes place in a single location, the apartment of the title character, a fashion designer. Simplicity doesn't mean poverty here; the set has been meticulously dressed and conspicuously decorated with a wall mural reproducing some Renaissance-style painting that ironically wags a constant penis at the feminine goings on. Everything appears to have been staged, lit and edited with intense calculation. Naturalistic long takes are contrasted with shots by ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to maximize the glamour of the fashion-plate players as if Petra Von Kant were a pre-Code Hollywood melodrama -- and that seems to be Fassbinder's point. He can, to an extent, reproduce Hollywood on a presumably tiny budget with dedicated, charismatic actresses and a forceful, almost anachronistic fashion sense. It could just as easily be called camp, but it's too self-conscious for that. It's more of a formal exercise in style -- though it can readily be regarded as if it were unconscious camp. By the end, it's hard to tell whether Fassbinder wants us to laugh or not -- or how he wants us to laugh if that's his intention.
Petra Von Kant (Margit Carstensen) is a rising fashion designer with a long-suffering live-in assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann) who finishes Petra's design drawings and occasionally makes some changes, fetches refreshments, and dances to The Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" when the mistress is in the mood. Marlene is a model of long-suffering mousiness, though her severe black dress -- she seems to have but one costume for the entire film -- is chic in its own way. She hardly speaks, but we can see resentment building whenever her eyes focus on some distasteful scene. Her intimate codependency is disrupted when the twice-married-but-now-swinging-the-other-way Petra falls hard for a younger model, Karin (New German Cinema queen Hanny Schygula).
The overall plot is a role reversal, as the domineering Petra becomes desperately dependent on an increasingly indifferent Karin. There's a conceptual perversity to the story that makes up a little for the relative lack of eroticism, as all the principle female characters dress in different degrees of vampish chic -- as in vintage seductress, not bloodsucker -- and the main character is sort of a vamp vamped. It's strange to see women playing for each other the archetypal roles men have long imagined for them. The effect is like what I'd expect from those theatrical companies in Japan where women play all the roles, including the male characters. Is it a confirmation of the pejorative view of women as predatory succubi, or a parody of it? Fassbinder directs with a poker face most of the way before possibly betraying himself at the very end. Spoilers follow over the next two paragraphs, so if you want to exit here, let me give the film a moderate thumbs up. The rest of you can keep reading.
Karin finally breaks up with Petra to rejoin her own husband, but not before a nasty scene in which Petra viciously insults her lover, only to be asked for money in callous fashion. The once masterful Petra descends into alcoholic longing, desperately hoping that Karin will be on the other line whenever the phone rings. She loses it completely at her own birthday party, raging at her mother, her daughter, her best friend and Marlene before breaking down at last. She's calmer the morning after, realizing the error of her ways and answering calmly and dismissively when Karin finally calls. Finally, she's alone with Marlene, and in a moment of insight she vows to be a more equal partner in the future. To restart things on the right foot, she asks her long-suffering assistant, "Tell me about yourself." Marlene responds as if she'd just drawn the queen of diamonds. As "The Great Pretender" plays on the phonograph, she storms in and out of the frame in either direction, gathering her belongings and stuffing them into a suitcase before grabbing the baby doll Petra had gotten as a present and walking out of the film. Petra has watched this with absolute passivity, and when it's over she simply turns out the light and goes to bed.
The Wikipedia synopsis suggests that Marlene leaves because she's already "satisfied her personal masochistic desire in submitting to Petra," and doesn't need to remain anymore. But it seems that the trigger is "Tell me about yourself," and the provocation is Marlene's realization that, after who knows how long, Petra knows nothing meaningful about her. As for Petra, her passivity may mean that she's given up or is now past caring, or it could even signify some confidence that Marlene will be back. However you read it, this coda is very much modern Hollywood in its soundtrackiness, and the effect of the music and Marlene's sudden rushing about seems comic, as if Petra's tragedy is ending in farce. I don't know if Fassbinder meant it to be as funny as it feels to a modern American viewer, and the film could be thought of as comedy only in a camp or meta way. But he probably did mean the finish to be ambiguous, since Marlene has been inscrutable to this point, and amid such ambiguity laughter is a valid option. The fact that you could leave the theater debating Marlene and Petra's behavior is probably proof of the film's psychological effectiveness even as it arguably succeeds simultaneously as a work of chamber surrealism. Petra Von Kant gets you thinking about a lot of things, and if you consider that a good thing, then this is a good film.