Enfant Terrible: Review. By Will Steele.
Enfant Terrible is a title more than befitting the infamous Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A pioneer of German New Wave Cinema, Fassbinder was a bona fide genius who cut his teeth in the theatres of Munich before transitioning into feature filmmaking where he directed 41 films within a 14 year period. His prolific career saw his celebrity rise and his reputation grow immeasurably controversial due to the boundaries he pushed in his work and his personal life.
Whether his work was broadcast, staged, taped or screened, every tale tended to focus on isolated and vulnerable characters caught up, out of their depth and exploited by cruel facets of modern society. The transparent distillation of Fassbinder’s turbulent personal life into his writing enriched his work hugely despite the tragic circumstances of its creation. If art is said to imitate life, then Enfant Terrible is the imitation of an artist. So does this portrait of Rainier Werner Fassbinder do justice to the life and legacy of one of the most controversial and renowned European directors of the 20th century?
Director Oskar Roehler’s biographical approach to Rainer Werner Fassbinder attempts to emulate Fassbinder’s style within a meta-commentary of the artist’s career. Enfant Terrible is staged like a play paying reverence to the early Brechtian efforts of Fassbinder: a deliberate choice which initially works but soon wears thin. The exorbitant 134 runtime feels inappropriately padded for the rapid pace at which Fassbinder lived. Any potential for nuance or ambiguity is promptly squandered by way of clunky expository dialogue and an immediately shallow caricature of our titular artist.
Oliver Masucci portrays Rainer Werner Fassbinder and naturally his performance is the lynch-pin by which the film shall succeed or fail. Despite a valiant effort, Masucci cannot overcome the melodrama of the piece and one wonders why the 52 year old actor was cast to portray the baby-faced Fassbinder whose life we follow throughout his 20s and 30s. The supporting cast similarly play to the rafters resulting in an unpalatably hammy rendition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s relationships.
If the recent oversaturation of biopics has taught us anything it is that this particular sub-genre has the dangerous tendencies of deifying their protagonists and retroactively glamourizing the past. Refreshingly Enfant Terrible largely avoids both by way of casting an unflinching eye across the murky and taboo elements of Fassbinder’s life which earned him so much controversy. Roehler distils the dramatic excess of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s life into drug and alcohol abuse so frequent that it becomes casual and commonplace thus replicating the haze of addiction which Fassbinder worked and ultimately perished in.
The intersection where these abuses meet the shadowy underworld of the burgeoning gay nightlife in Europe certainly make for the most compelling scenes of the film. Unlike many biopics of LGBTQ+ artists, Enfant Terrible delves into the complex and unconventional sexuality Fassbinder exhibited through his numerous affairs with both men and women, many of which were fraught with violence and cruelty. However the film fails when it comes to the more predatory inclinations of our lead in his professional life. Roehler seems irksomely neutral when portraying Fassbinder’s tortuous and predatory behaviour towards his cast and crew. So whilst Enfant Terrible avoids the tired trappings of the modern biopic, it excuses the bad behaviour of a male director for the sake of the art which came from process: an all-too common injustice in the way male artists are portrayed.
Enfant Terrible is a manic and muddled tribute to the life and work of one of Germany’s greatest directors. Oskar Roehler has intentionally captured the cinematic language of Rainer Werner Fassbinder whilst perhaps unintentionally mirroring Fassbinder’s talent for alienating his audiences. It is ultimately the failure of the film to find an intimate or refined approach to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life as a whole which makes the project feel tragically redundant.
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