Despite expert staging of mise-en-scene and astute camerawork, Fassbinder’s psychological chamber piece on infidelity and deep-seated hate probably only works as an intellectual exercise.
Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
1976 | Germany | Drama | 86 mins | 1.66:1 | German
Not rated (likely to be NC16 for sexuality and some violence)
Cast: Anna Karina, Margit Carstensen, Brigitte Mira
Plot: Both the parents of a young teen who walks with crutches, go on each their secret meeting with lovers, both surprising each other at the family’s country home.
Source: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Blu-ray)
Having already made numerous films by this point of his career, the indefatigable R.W. Fassbinder seemed to treat filmmaking like a fitness regime befitting a Navy SEAL. As such, one could see Chinese Roulette as a muscle that has not been flexed, and in it, Fassbinder saw the opportunity to make a psychological chamber piece about a family with secrets.
It is a curious work in the director’s filmography (though one could argue that nearly every film of his is curio), but it is certainly not recommended for viewers attempting Fassbinder for the first or second time.
For completists, however, Chinese Roulette is a must-watch, if only to see Fassbinder attempting an intellectual exercise within his own set of narrative and spatial parameters. Here, he shows an eye for building tension, sometimes in a Hitchcockian sense, as he expertly stages the mise-en-scene vis-à-vis astute camerawork (by Michael Ballhaus no less).
It is almost like theatre, with the actors’ movements captured by the free-wheeling camera that often begins and halts behind the countless glass boxes housing artifacts that are positioned strategically between actors, and in between the actor and the camera.
In this heightened (and perhaps filtered) physical and visual realm, Fassbinder lets the drama—in all of its truths and lies—unfold and slow-boil to an inevitable climax and ambiguous conclusion.
A bit of the story might help to make sense of what I’ve written above without giving away too much. The film centers on a well-to-do married couple with a disabled daughter and her caretaker. From the onset, we feel there is something amiss about this family.
After the couple say their goodbyes on the pretext of each having to go on their routine business trips, we find them a while later—separately with their secret lovers. Both ‘couples’ are surprised to find one another in the same space (a private mansion in the countryside), a site that has seemingly been used for months, maybe years, for their own extra-marital romps without the knowledge of the other.
The elephant in the room is certainly that of infidelity, but Fassbinder is interested in something else, something far deeper etched in the psyche of the daughter who appears to have set the two couples up for a volatile confrontation—that of deep-seated hate.
They all play ‘Chinese Roulette’, a question-and-answer game that toys with present relationships through the contexts of history, politics and possibly sex. As the questions and answers become more provocative, the film becomes colder, perhaps only working best as a neurotic encounter.