In Her Room: Fassbinder and Akerman’s Claustrophobic Melodramas

In Her Room: Fassbinder and Akerman’s Claustrophobic Melodramas

While the COVID-19 lockdown feels like a once in a lifetime phenomenon, stories of chamber pieces, claustrophobic psychological studies, have governed cinema for decades. Through masterworks from Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman, Isabelle Bucklow analyses the unravelling of a woman’s mind: in anxious spaces both physical and mental. 

Around halfway through Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Petra glides across her bedroom to the phonograph. A rousing trumpet call punctuates the still air and Scott Walker croons:

 In my room way at the end of the hallI sit and stare at the wallThinking how lonesome I've grown, all aloneIn my roomIn my room where every night is the sameI play a dangerous gameI keep pretending she's lateAnd I sit, and I wait.

Petra explains to her companion, Karin, that the music “either makes me very sad or very happy… It depends.” And over the course of the film, we see Petra experience both jubilation and despair. The Walker Brothers’ ‘In My Room’ is an entirely appropriate refrain for Petra’s situation; during the course of the film she never leaves her room, nor does the camera, and consequently nor do we. 

Given that lockdown restrictions rendered us all housebound, an unchanging physical environment has provoked in me a heightened fluctuation between “very sad or very happy.” In my room where every night is, physically, the same, my psychological state has been all over the place. This formula, where domestic confinement provokes emotional release, was well known to the melodrama genre, and taken to extremes by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Bitter Tears. Along with Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) utilises a similar melodramatic structure to probe the complex inner world of her female protagonist. 

Originally a play, Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears maintains the theatrical form of the chamber piece, that is, a small cast typically limited to just one room. The chamber piece was adapted for the cinema in the 1920s and brought to prominence by Ingmar Bergman. Bergman recognised that a controlled environment facilitated an intensification of psychological drama, wherein the emotional dynamics between characters alone could drive the plot forward. His chamber pieces offered female leads the opportunity to explore three-dimensional characters who were neither hero nor villain; take Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata who oscillates between mother and monster and both at once. 


Bergman films are also melodramas of sorts. The genre, dubiously labelled as “woman’s film” in 1940s Hollywood, often followed a female lead navigating a crisis of emotion, in a domestic setting and so (obviously!) appealed to women. But rather than dwell on the obvious reinforcement of problematic clichés, the melodrama, best exemplified by Douglas Sirk, has been praised by feminist critics for its critical empathy and social insight. During the Great Depression, melodramas addressed class issues, or, when depicting the bourgeoisie, probed sexual politics and psychological conflicts that had historically been snubbed as hysteria. Melodrama provides the frame, the home provides the setting, and hysteria provides the performative outlet to explore a woman’s refusal to comply with her socially and sexually prescribed roles.  

Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears is both chamber piece and melodrama, wherein an unchanging environment amplifies fluctuating power relations between three central female characters. The relationships could be reductively categorised as sexual, and classed however this would conceal a wider ontological concern regarding dominance and oppression, freedom and captivity, where the preferable condition is unclear and indefinitely deferred. The status, motives and desires of the women are convoluted to the point of parody, with flamboyant outfits and saturated colour further accentuating this volatile psychological landscape. 

Commenting on Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Rainer Werner Fassbinder praised ,”Women think in Sirk’s films...Usually women are always reacting…It’s great to see women think, It gives one hope.” Petra’s bedroom is surrounded by dolls; hollowed-out bodies that don’t think. Petra assumes she can manipulate people just as she can those dolls. Upon Karin’s arrival, Petra recruits her as a mannequin for her fashion designs and later seduces her. Karin feigns submission, but unlike the dummies that surround her, she is capable of subversion. After falling for Karin, Petra then becomes Karin’s play-thing. Petra’s constant costume changes and mask of make-up present her as disconcertingly doll-like, not for the sake of male viewing pleasure, but rather exemplary of theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht’s estrangement effect. Petra’s artifice forces us to acknowledge that identity is socially produced, performed and perceived. At the very end of the film, Petra weeps on her bed having inadvertently forced her companions away. The Platters’ ‘The Great Pretender’ plays, mocking Petra’s fantasy of change. Her tears, finally expressed in their most natural guise yet, reveal the multifaceted intricacies of identity construction and the destabilising consequence of apparent emotional authenticity. 

 Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman also takes on the classic elements of melodrama; domesticity, sexual relations and hysteria. Akerman fleshes out these tropes with unrelenting attentiveness. Unlike Petra, Jeanne is afforded brief release from domestic captivity, however the majority of the film moves between the kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom. We watch Jeanne, a mother and sex worker, go about her daily chores; cleaning, cooking and having pleasureless sex with male clients. Jeanne is near-silent (the final stage of hysteria is muteness) for the majority of the film, and recalls Petra’s voiceless assistant Marlene. In Bitter Tears’ closing moments, Marlene rejects Petra’s offer of equality to seek domination elsewhere, a move that asserts oppression as choice, unexpectedly granting her skewed agency. Jeanne too saves her release till the very end of the film. Jeanne’s internalised aphonic hysteria is forced outward when after three hours, reliable monotony tips into defamiliarization; the potatoes burn, a fork falls to the floor, she experiences an orgasm, the day culminates in murder. 


Domestic entrapment pushes Fassbinder and Akerman’s protagonists to emotional extremes, in Jeanne’s case leading her to stab a client. While neither film explicitly addresses anything beyond the personal and domestic sphere, the subversive potential of melodrama offers indirect scrutiny of social norms. It reveals that oppressive external frameworks seep into the domestic and are further internalised emotionally, the release of which is often unexpected and derailing.

Limited external stimulus provokes great emotional interrogation, which might in turn expose a socio-political bias to question. Fassbinder advised; “When you live with problems rather than hiding them, then you can analyse them and overcome them. And in that way masochism can lead to something positive. Self-knowledge is essential.” After Jeanne’s emotional release, she sits alone at the dinner table, her head slightly lowered, she gazes just beyond the frame, the film ends. After Petra’s companions have all deserted her, she sits alone in her bed. Like Jeanne, her head is lowered, she gazes just beyond the frame and then falls back into the bed, the film ends. We are offered no clear resolution, nor a breath outside of domestic space. Instead, these women who have let their ‘problems’ come out of hiding are now primed to analyse and overcome them. The change may not be drastic, as Fassbinder already showed with Marlene’s choice to seek domination elsewhere, but nonetheless the choices will be without pretence – they will be critically informed.

Isabelle Bucklow is a writer based in London. She has a background in History of Art and is soon to complete an MA in Anthropology - Material and Visual Culture - at UCL. She is particularly interested in researching and writing about cinema, performance, domestic space, objects gesture, habit and the practice of writing


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