Wednesday 17 March 2021

Enfant Terrible (Oskar Roehler, 2020)

In the second sequel to Despicable Me—a title which, had it not already been taken, would have proved an apt choice for Oskar Roehler's latest film—Trey Parker's villainous Balthazar Bratt frequently wheels out his catchphrase: "I've been a bad boy".  Were the subject of Enfant Terrible—infamous Bavarian filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder—to borrow Bratt's catchphrase, it would stand as a monumental understatement, much like the title of Roehler's biopic, which doesn't come remotely close to crystallising the wide-ranging cruelty meted out by the unhinged director.  While Roehler's film allows us to marvel at Fassbinder's prolific career—by the time of his death, at age 37, he'd completed more than 40 films—it is by no means a hagiography, and the consequences of Fass' destructive behaviour are laid bare for all to see.  That said, there are times when Fassbinder comes across as an almost sympathetic character, one who appears pathologically incapable of accepting the love and attention he continually craves.

Much of Enfant Terrible's appeal lies in its towering central performance; as Fassbinder, Oliver Masucci is little short of sensational, and the actor deftly avoids lapsing into caricature.  For the majority of the hefty running time, Masucci's Fassbinder is rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth and/or a drink in his hand, and as the film progresses we see the director's drug habit escalate to the extent where it eventually, predictably causes his premature death; the copious substance abuse depicted here goes a long way towards explaining both Fassbinder's productivity and his frequently appalling treatment of those close to him.  As Enfant Terrible goes about the business of detailing the production of several of its subject's films, it soon becomes apparent that Fassbinder saw no meaningful line of demarcation between his life and work, and whoever was in favour at any given time was likely to be playing the lead both on and off screen.  Mind you, there was really only one lead in Fassbinder's life; just in case we've failed to identify who this is, one particularly loyal subject—who's been pushed far beyond his limits—finally sends a home truth in Fass' direction, yelling, "only your feelings count".  If only Fassbinder cared what others thought.  

Enfant Terrible is populated by many recognisable characters. including Andy Warhol, Jack Palance, Ulli Lommel, and of course the core group who became famous on the basis of their work with Fassbinder; some of these have retained their actual names, while others—such as Hanna Schygulla—are represented by thinly-veiled proxies.  Few, if any, of Fassbinder's entourage are safe from his vindictive, bullying nature, and we witness the director masterminding numerous cruel incidents: a vegetarian is coerced into eating meat; an actor is forced to do a stuntman's job as he's dragged along the ground by a motorcycle; and a pair of young children are deliberately locked out of an apartment as the rain lashes down.  Fassbinder's unpleasantness, much like the devotion of his numerous hangers-on, knows few bounds, and it seems that the bulk of his circle are prepared to overlook the tyrannical behaviour of someone who seems indifferent to the damage he inflicts on others; indeed, more than one of those close to Fassbinder winds up dead before he does.

While Enfant Terrible is perhaps ten minutes too long, it is an absorbing, hugely entertaining film that's anchored by a terrific leading performance.  While Masucci—an actor previously best known for Netflix series Dark—is around fifteen years older than Fassbinder was when he died, he's so compelling and convincing in the part that this proves to be no obstacle; this is all the more remarkable when you consider that he plays Fassbinder from the age of 22 until his death (admittedly, it probably helps that the drug-ravaged Fass could have passed for someone much older as his life neared its conclusion).   The film is stylised to the extent that it's often hard to know whether we're looking at a set of a Fassbinder film or just a scene of the director at home with his friends, which again highlights the lack of a boundary between the subject's life and work.  At times, Enfant Terrible's look and feel recall those of another biopic, Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, and Roehler's film is a similarly handsome piece of work, one that will hopefully prompt those new to Fassbinder to dive into his extensive filmography.  Enfant Terrible screens as part of BFI Flare from today until March 28; should geo-restrictions prevent you from viewing the film at the festival, there is another option available in the form of the German Blu-ray, which was released just a few days ago. 

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI