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Enfant Terrible

Munich, 1967. A group of actors are rehearsing. The director attempts with limited success to maintain control. Gradually one of the actors, a shambolic chain smoker, starts taking over. Welcome, world, to Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The film takes us through Fassbinder’s brief but prolific career, largely as a film director, until his death of an overdose at the age of 37. The presentation is very mannered – most scenes look like they have been filmed on a film set or theatre stage, and the backdrop (eg a window or drinks in the bar) is often drawn onto the scenery.

Some films benefit from such staginess – Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, for example. Yet there never seems to be any real point to this artificiality, which seems to mainly exist just to draw attention to itself. I guess this is director Oskar Roehler’s way of making us sure that we are being shown the life of a Great and Important Artist.

A large part of the film is shown from Fassbinder’s bedroom, with him in a dressing gown and pants, over which his bloated belly hangs. For most of the time he is accompanied by one of his 2 great lovers – first the Moroccan El Hedi, later Armin – and often by an extended entourage. And he behaves like an arsehole to every single one of them.

There’s lots of shouting and humiliation. A vegetarian is forced to eat meat until she’s sick. There’s also a lot of beer and cocaine, with Fassbinder looking increasingly out of control. It’s all a bit like watching a spoiled toddler screaming and screaming until he gets his own way. The Enfant Terrible is truly an awful child.

At no time does anyone stand up and say, hey Rainer Werner, stop fucking about with us like this. His lovers are hurt, occasionally they break tables and televisions out of frustration, but they keep on returning for more abuse. Now this may have been what happened but if people were so desperate to stay with such an annoying prick, there must have been something they saw in him. We see none of this in the film.

You’d guess that what set Fassbinder apart was his artistic vision, but this is barely mentioned. Fassbinder’s films are rarely referred to, apart from a couple of scenes on the Berlinale podium and a brief chat with a vacuous Andy Vorhall. So the thing which might have made Fassbinder attractive is entirely absent. Which means that his lovers just come across as passive gluttons for punishment.

We are treated to over 2 hours in the company of a man who we’d normally avoid like crazy, while he being indulged by people who are not in awe of how he is but who he is. Even someone giving him a blow job pauses to ask for an autograph. If this were a party, we’d be grabbing a bottle and locking ourselves in the toilet or somewhere. The idea that anyone would willing spend time with this sort of person seems quite bizarre to me.

I’m not disputing the fact that Fassbinder produced great films, but we experience none of this in Enfant Terrible, which could have just as easily been about a twattish chiropractor or orthodontist. Except that no-one would pay good money to see a film about them. So what is it with the unconditional hero worship that merely the name Fassbinder in the cast list means that any criticism is forbidden?

I suspect that one of the implied messages of this film is that genius comes from antisocial behaviour – that the greatest works of art come from sordid individuals breaking social rules. Now this is not a point of view that I share, but even if it were true, would it hurt to show the product of this genius – to show the great art that allegedly resulted from such shitty behaviour?

Excuse me if I have overreacted. I am sure there are all sorts of people who are not pseudy posers who will nevertheless get something important from the film. And whole chunks of it are indubitably well made. But I really fail to see the point. A story about an artist that shows (but doesn’t try to explain) his personal failings, but doesn’t let us into any of his art?

It’s like my mate once said after she’d paid good money to see Nicolas Cage drinking himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas. “If I wanted to see that sort of thing, I could have stayed at home and watched my boyfriend.” Funnily enough, they didn’t last too much longer together. Despite the critical acclaim that’s pretty much how it is between me and Enfant Terrible.

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