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FilmWatch Weekly: A pair of gay icons explored in ‘Peter von Kant’ and ‘Loving Highsmith,’ plus the anarchic ‘Daisies’ and the offbeat ‘Cathedral’

A contemporary riff on Fassbinder, the private life of a classic suspense writer, and a host of good revivals: It's a movie week for looking back.

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Stefan Crepon and Denis Ménochet in “Peter von Kant.”

Admittedly, the potential audience for François Ozon’s new film Peter von Kant is pretty limited. If you’ve never seen, much less obsessed over, Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 baroque bedroom melodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a lot of what’s going on here will be irrelevant. But if you have, or even if you’re only familiar with the oversized, libertine legend of Fassbinder, the notoriously prolific yet short-lived queer German auteur, there’s a good deal of metafictional fun to be had.

Like its inspiration, Peter von Kant takes place entirely in the apartment of its protagonist, only instead of a lesbian fashion designer, the central figure is a barely veiled version of Fassbinder himself. Denis Ménochet walks a fine line between cartoonery and empathy as the portly, self-important filmmaker, who lives alone with his angular, silent, put-upon assistant Karl (Stefan Crepon).

One day, Sidonie, a famous actress who got her start with von Kant, pays a visit. She’s played by the great Isabelle Adjani, in a rare and welcome appearance, one in which she seems to actually have fun. This leads to a meeting between von Kant and the very attractive young Arab actor Amir (Khalil Ben Gharbia), for whom our impulsive antihero falls hard and fast. This is where Fassbinder bros will recall the fact that he had a famously tumultuous affair with El Hedi ben Salem, the Arab actor who starred in, among others, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

There’s plenty of cocaine (this is 1970s Cologne), an adequate amount of anguished romantic pleading, and several amusing scenes during von Kant’s 14-year-old daughter’s (Aminthe Audiard) visit home from school. Fassbinder muse (and co-star of Bitter Tears) Hanna Schygulla plays von Kant’s mother in a couple of scenes.

Ozon had his first real breakthrough way back in 2000 with his precocious adaptation of Fassbinder’s play Water Drops on Burning Rocks. He’s definitely the contemporary European filmmaker most in the Fassbinder tradition, albeit in a much more sustainable mode, continuing to churn out a feature almost every year since the late ’90s. (Fassbinder famously directed 44 projects–several of them multi-hour television series–before his drug-induced death at the age of 37. If this guy hadn’t existed, somebody would have invented him.)

So is Peter von Kant anything more than gender-swapped fanfic? Not really, but the performances are fun, and maybe it gets a few folks interested in one of the most fascinating careers in cinema history. Sometimes that’s enough. (Opens on Friday, Sept. 9, at Cinema 21).

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A young Patricia Highsmith, as seen in “Loving Highsmith.

ANOTHER QUEER ICON, though largely in posthumous fashion, gets the star treatment in the documentary Loving Highsmith. Novelist Patricia Highsmith became an instant sensation when her first book was adapted into the Alfred Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train. She followed that up with The Talented Mr. Ripley and several sequels, ultimately writing 22 novels.

What wasn’t widely known at the time was that Highsmith was also the author of The Price of Salt, also known as Carol, a lesbian romance that was published under a pseudonym in 1952 and made into a film 63 years later by Todd Haynes. Loving Highsmith provides an in-depth look at Highsmith’s childhood, which began in Texas and featured, by all accounts, a truly terrible mother.

Director Eva Vitija includes extensive interviews with three of Highsmith’s lovers, who offer glimpses into what was inevitably a very private life. Scenes from the film adaptations of her work illustrate the ways that life inspired her work—as with so many gay authors kept in the closet, tales of doubling and imitation abound. And actor Gwendoline Christie reads from selections of Highsmith’s previously unpublished diaries and notebooks. (Among the topics that go unmentioned is Highsmith’s unrepentant antisemitism.)

The net result is an engaging examination of an author who managed to revolutionize two genres of literature, one of them with only one book! (Carol was reportedly the first lesbian romance ever published with a happy ending.) And to commemorate its release, Living Room Theaters has programmed a selection of the films she inspired: Strangers on a Train (starting Sept. 9), Purple Noon (Sept. 23), The American Friend (Sept. 30), and Carol (Sept. 30). (Loving Highsmith opens at the Living Room Theaters on Friday, Sept. 9.)

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REPERTORY REPRESENTS: This is a remarkably fertile week for repertory programming in Portland (which makes sense considering the film industry’s current dry spell). The Hollywood Theatre is showing new 4K versions of Blue Velvet and Pink Flamingos all week long, in addition to its regular array of cult and crowd favorites. Cinemagic is holding a seven-film retrospective of the work of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, presumably in honor of his contribution to Sam Mendes’ upcoming Empire of Light. It goes back as far as 1984’s 1984, and includes No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and others. Not to be topped, Cinema 21 is trotting out North by Northwest for the week and The Wizard of Oz for weekend matinees. The original Godzilla roars to life at the Clinton Street Theater on Friday night.

But of all the oldies popping up this week, the one to catch for sure is Daisies, the marvelously anarchic, feminist classic made in 1966 by Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová. Largely plotless, it follows the disruptive misadventures of a pair of women who decide that society is lame and deserves to be messed with. An integral part (and probably the most fun part) of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, it’s getting a restoration and re-release from Janus Films. The film is anti-authoritarian in both content and form, and a reminder of just how adventurous cinema can be when it flowers in the face of enforced conformity. (Daisies opens on Friday, Sept. 9, at Living Room Theaters.)

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest Concert Portland Oregon

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STREAMING PICK: Director Ricky D’Ambrose’s second low-budget feature, The Cathedral, has a quintessentially American logline: It’s the (at least) semi-autobiographical story of a kid growing up in a turbulent Italian-American family on Long Island during the 1990s and early 2000s. Fortunately, D’Ambrose employs an impressionistic style that alternately distances the viewer by adopting a documentary-style vibe (complete with dry narration) and draws us in by presenting mundane still shots from the kid’s perspective: a paper plate on a carpeted floor holding half a sandwich and a sliced apple, or an egg-dying set ready for use on a white tablecloth, for instance.

Adding to the clinical feel are the mostly detached, mannered performances, with one exception being Brian d’Arcy James as the volatile, scheming father. As D’Ambrose’s on-screen corollary ages from around 5 to his high-school graduation, world events, from TWA Flight 800 to 9/11 to Katrina, occasionally intercede in the form of news clips that are soon forgotten. There are various conflicts within the family, but nothing that would rank as horrific trauma, which makes The Cathedral (it takes its title from the David Macauley illustrated book) a unique perspective on an all-too ordinary upbringing. (Streaming on MUBI.com starting Friday, Sept. 9.)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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