CHINESE ROULETTE (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s camera glides around and around peopled rooms in Traunitz Castle, to where unbeknownst in advance marital partners Gerhard and Ariane Christ each has brought his or her lover. (The castle is their country home.) Everyone, “caught,” laughs brittly; their crippled teenaged daughter, Angela, along with her deaf-mute attendant whose name is Traunitz, also arrives. Despite her virtuous name (Angela Christ), the girl is up to no good, setting her elders to play Chinese Roulette, a verbal “truth game” where cruel questions are asked and answered, and where on this occasion a bullet (instead of a spinning roulette wheel ball) eventually finds an unexpected home. The film ends outside the mansion at night—a long-shot accompanied by the sound of a bullet indoors, halting the group’s movement to their cars with a powerful freeze-frame. Is the discharge new, or a haunting collective echo?
     Forlorn, baroque, stylish and slow, the pace, however, helping to make the film explosively funny at some of its twists and turns (as when caretaker/cook Kast’s son, Gabriel, pulls out of a piece of luggage belonging to one of the guests a dildo, which he proceeds to caress), Chinesisches Roulette suggests the influences of Sartre’s No Exit and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Have you ever been in Hell?” Gabriel asks the gas station attendant, who cryptically answers, “Yes.” The long day’s nasty game-playing somehow seems to strengthen the Christs as a couple.
     This formally very beautiful piece of work shows life as a truth-vs.-illusionary stage play, all aglitter, inhabited by mirror-images; at one point, we see each of two different female characters as a trapped reflection in a separate (male?) mirror. Margit Carstensen gives a riveting performance as Ariane; Anna Karina is lovely as Irene, Gerhard’s mistress.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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