***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***
The universe in German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder's bizarre psychological drama "Chinese Roulette" is rather unnerving. In a fantastic opening sequence, a woman and her daughter listen to Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony while drolly exchanging deadpan stares and looking out the window. Only one word is uttered by the woman, Ariane Christ (Margit Cartensen) after she lights her cigarette…"Nice?" and soon after, a few others interrupt by joining in, and the ethereal music abruptly ends! The opening sequence is a kind of teaser to what's to follow in this strange Gothic thriller of sorts with some of the most ambiguous characters and character interactions one is likely to witness in a seemingly normal scheme of things in a story set in a normal world.
It is the home of wealthy business mogul Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson) who resides with his crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schober) and his wife Ariane. Angela has a mute governess Traunitz (Macha Meril) to take care of her. Gerhard is off on a business trip (or is he?) and soon as he reaches the airport, instead of catching a flight, he rushes to welcome his lover Irene (Anna Karina) in a warm embrace!
Ensuring that his wife and daughter would be away somewhere else, Gerhard takes Irene to his plush mansion in an isolated location, looked after by a sinister looking Kast (Brigitte Mira) and her sexually ambivalent son Gabriel (Volker Spengler). But little do they know, there is a rather unpleasant surprise awaiting them in the form of Ariane and her lover Kolbe (Ulli Lommel), Gerhard's assistant who unbeknownst to them also land up at the same mansion for some private time together..! The situation reaches the most uncomfortable levels with the entry of Angela and Traunitz into the scene and a rather intriguing face-off ensues…
While one would expect the proceedings to take a melodramatic turn with confrontational scenes between the couple engaged in their own adulterous liaisons, Fassbinder surprises with a rather odd turn of events that guarantee an exceptional film viewing experience. It is rather unsettling how the two couples clearly caught with their pants down laugh it off and shake hands after the initial shock quickly settles down! They even sit together at a dinner table, exchange anecdotes, but a palpable sense of discomfort and tension fills the environment. The minimalist but taut screenplay keeps the viewer in anticipation of what's to come. How would this possibly end? How will the couple react after this initial display of stoicism to their partners' love affairs? The entry of Angela and Traunitz to the ménage a quatre makes things more complicated and add to the intrigue.
But it is not just the plot and the direction subsequently taken by it that is solely responsible for keeping the viewer hooked. It is the strangely fascinating characters, all with an air of mystery about them, all ambiguous to the core, and none that could warranty a full-fledged dissection for clarity! Of course, the intention isn't such. The ambiguity is the focal point here. The interactions are equally oddball with some delicious non sequiturs. This is the kind of family that looks happy on the outside but harbours dark secrets within and lives on assumptions!
So it is no surprise when Angela reveals the kind of feelings she has about the whole business of her parents being party to illicit relationships. We never get a sense of what kind of person each character really is but do know that there is much more to them than meets the eye. And hence Fassbinder repeatedly chooses a clever device of filming his characters from behind glass columns or in mirrors, giving off a fractured, distorted image of each person. Sometimes the angles chosen are such that faces seem to split or merge.
None of the characters are entirely likeable and all of them seem to share questionable relationships, even the most apparently innocuous twosome of the lot, Angela and her governess Traunitz! In a blink-and-miss tiny bit, a blind beggar appears at the door and later it is revealed that he wasn't blind at all, and then drives off in his car parked on the other side! This might seem rather vague and unrelated, but it fits well within the context of how appearances are deceptive and the entire world is living under some kind of illusion.
The setting of the film is such that makes it resemble a gothic ghost story. The huge mansion, rich paraphernalia and decoration, luxurious liquor cabinets, empty surroundings, a view from the window showcasing a refreshing green world, yet there is something inherently bleak about this whole atmosphere. In one scene, the camera pans from the idyllic surroundings and the greens and then stops by a rotting, maggot-infested head of a stag. This perhaps serves as a reminder that all things that seem beautiful eventually die an ugly death!
The ominous aura in "Chinese Roulette" is intensified with lyrical combinations of imagery and poetry like in the instance Angela starts quoting the works of Rimbaud or when Gabriel is reading from his manuscript while the foursome look visibly perturbed. The drama rife with hypnotic imagery and an eclectic score as a fitting accompaniment, is enhanced by clever dialog and brilliant all-round acting. It would be unfair to single out a particular actor when all of them deliver to the fullest, yet Brigitte Mira as Kast and Margit Carstensen as Ariane leave a bigger impression with their stupendous acts. On the able shoulders of these fine actors, "Chinese Roulette" builds to a startling climax with a titular game of Chinese Roulette in the third act that promises to be a game-changing event, literally! And with an ending more equivocal than the characters, Fassbinder throws a curve ball, yet leaves us with a content smile of having seen something thought-provoking and extraordinary.