Berlin: 3 Questions With ‘Peter von Kant’ Star Denis Ménochet

Everyone who has watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) remembers the opening scene: Christoph Waltz as ice-cold Nazi Col. Hans Landa interrogating a French dairy farmer suspected of hiding Jews. Waltz’s sinister charm is more than matched by French actor Denis Ménochet as the farmer, a restrained performance where haunted silences say more than any lines of dialog.

Restrained is not the word for Ménochet’s latest character, the titular Peter von Kant in the new film from François Ozon, a free adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 melodrama Petra von Kant. Ménochet channels Fassbinder himself, playing a successful director who falls for a young actor (newcomer Khalil Ben Gharbia) and seduces him with promises of fame and fortune. An outsized performance in every sense, Ménochet is fearless in his depiction of the extremes of agony, ecstasy, self-pity and pathos.

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The 45-year-old French star sat down with THR‘s Scott Roxborough in Berlin, where Peter von Kant premiered as the opening-night film of the 72nd Berlinale.

Are you happy to be back in Berlin and at an in-person film festival again?

It’s different, of course, because you have the COVID protocols, but at least it’s happening. It’s not an online festival, which is pointless, in my opinion. I’m happy to be back. I made Inglourious Basterds here 14 years ago. We were here with By the Grace of God three years ago. So it’s great to be back. I love this town.

You’re obviously channeling Fassbinder in your performance in Peter von Kant. How did you research the role?

I watched the films, the interviews with him. There’s a little documentary where he had someone film him and his boyfriend in their flat, where he’s ordering cocaine, getting wrecked, some super-grim stuff… The thing is, Fassbinder was a very lonely person, a very lonely child, he was brokenhearted very young. So that was interesting to explore and to see how he would try and possess other people, try to create a new family around him, only to break it again. Sometimes I see him almost like an ogre trying to eat his children. But the role is more in the text, where you have the Ozon universe and the Fassbinder universe, and they sort of meet halfway. François adds different textures to the text, some humor and lightness. Otherwise, it would be too dark or too creepy.

Your performance in films like In the House or Inglourious Basterds are very restrained. Here you really go for it. What were the most difficult scenes of the film to shoot?

Personally, it was getting naked. I think my butt won’t speak to me anymore. I’m a big guy. And so I don’t get naked in front of the crew that often. So that was difficult for me, personally, but not going all out in the performance. Sometimes it’s nice to just close your mind and belt things out and scream. It feels good. Kind of therapeutic.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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