Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder / West Germany, 1976):
(Chinesisches Roulette)

Love in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's grinning, glittering comedy is getting used to somebody, and murder therapeutically brings a straying bourgeois couple closer together. The concept is Chabrolian, announced early on with a high-angle shot of illicit lovers meeting and then spiked with mementos from Godard (Anna Karina and Macha Méril are on hand); the contrast is mainly his model's detached eye versus Fassbinder's helplessly personal involvement with even the most supercilious of characters. Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen are the moneyed couple, Karina and Ulli Lommell are the lovers, and Andrea Schober is the couple's crippled young daughter; a spoof of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf supplies the structure, and Fassbinder the stunning tableaux and gliding camera movements. Allerson and Karina drive up to the country estate kept by Brigitte Mira for an amorous weekend, and frolic through the woods while Volker Spengler, Mira's creepy writer son, unpacks a dildo from their baggage. ("Have you ever been in Hell," he asks a clerk at the gas station. "Yes.") The adulterous duo runs to the living room, only to find Carstensen and Lommell on the floor. Awkward, sure, though they all try their best to be blasé about it, the director plunking his specimens in a room and circling the camera around them, polishing the Plexiglass fishbowl; the dinner composition subtly sinks in quicksand, a trope borrowed for Goodfellas by Scorsese via cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. The unholy meeting comes courtesy of Schober, who soon joins the party with her loudly clanking leg brace and Méril, her mute governess and virtually part of her doll collection -- revenge is in the little girl's mind, all hands on deck for the eponymous guessing game, a ritualistic hatefest with words rather than bullets to eviscerate feelings and exorcise contempt ("What would this person have been in the Third Reich?"). Carstensen, in hairnet and stockings, deems Allerson's jealousy unsatisfactory, Méril hopscotches in crutches to proto-'80s synthesizer music, and the beauty of the images everywhere is purposely corroded by the concentrated malice of the emotions. The openness of Nature outside mocks the games people play on each other inside; when the truth itself is contaminated, Fassbinder notes, everybody loses.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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