Monday 20 March 2023

Mubi Monday: Chinese Roulette (1976)

You generally know what you're in for with a film from the superb Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His films, although densely-packed and generally not exactly overflowing with rainbows and happy joy joy, always tend to explore sexuality, freedoms and repression (self-imposed or from society), and people able to twist a knife in one another. Chinese Roulette is no exception.

Things begin with a husband and wife, Gerhard (Alexander Allerson) and Ariane (Margit Carstensen), preparing to spend a weekend apart, both having different tasks they have to attend to. It turns out that both of them are lying. Gerhard is aiming to spend a weekend with his mistress, Irene (Anna Karina), at the family's second home. Ariane is also aiming to spend a weekend with a lover (Kolbe, played by Ulli Lommel), and is also wanting to make use of the family's second home. When the two couples encounter one another, there's a surprising lack of any fiery arguments or embarrassment. Everyone is civil, to the great relief of the house staff (Kast, played by Brigitte Mira, and her son, Gabriel, played by Volker Spengler), and the weekend is far from ruined. This isn't what Angela (Andrea Schober) wanted. Angela is the daughter of Gerhard and Ariane, and she turns up, accompanied by her mute governess (Traunitz, played by Macha Méril), to ensure that calm and contentment shall not prevail.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again (and it's not a unique opinion to express), Fassbinder created an astonishing body of work before his premature death, in terms of both quantity and quality. I never look at his films and think of them as being hampered by low budgets or limited resources. Part of that is due to the fact that they tend to always look so gorgeous, but another part of that is down to his writing. You are drawn towards the main characters, whether rooting for them or curious to find out how much they might be aiming to misbehave, and you can be attracted and repulsed by them in equal measure.

The cast here are all on a par with the usual ensemble assembled by Fassbinder, and most viewers should be unsurprised to see people here who collaborated a number of times with the writer-director. Allerson, Carstensen, Karina, and Lommel are generally focusing on maintaining their civility and grace, and they excel at showing how difficult that can be as the situation becomes more exasperating, while Schober gets to revel in an opportunity to blow apart their carefully-constructed facades, blowing down their straw houses as if she's the big, bad, wolf disguised as a disabled teenage girl. Mira and Allerson portray two "outsiders" who are both complicit, although they seem to have differing reasons for wanting the status quo to remain as it is. Méril may be playing someone mute, but she still gets to make as strong an impression as any of the speaking performers by the time the third act plays out.

Some might find this a bit too overly melodramatic and contrived, especially as the finale feels very much like some kind of "dark and stormy night" whodunnit, but I thought it was very enjoyable. It's not up there with the very best of Fassbinder, which is a high bar indeed, but it's yet another film from him that should please anyone familiar with his incisive style


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