Starring: Anna Karina, Margit Carstensen, Alexander Allerson
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Running Time: 86 mins
Chinese Roulette (Chinesisches Roulette) is a German film about a married couple who unexpectedly stumble across one another’s lovers in their family mansion. After discovering that this meeting was in fact set up by their angered daughter, they soon find themselves caught in a terrifying game.
This is a very, very dark film. Telling a complex and bleak story that’s mixed with abstract drama, unsettling cinematography and a whole range of very unnerving performances, Chinese Roulette is far from the easiest movie you’ve ever watched, instead ploughing forth with a difficult plot that’s just as interesting as it is often incoherent.
Let’s start with the one thing that really works about this film, and that’s just how dark it is. While it doesn’t make for a particularly pleasant watch, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder brings an incredibly bleak atmosphere to proceedings that deals with all sorts of uncomfortable topics, all of which is further accentuated by the film’s deliberately drab and empty visuals, making for a hugely unnerving watch.
Whether it be the strangely unfeeling manner in which the husband and wife respond to their significant other’s secret lovers, or the series of increasingly dark games and twists that unfold over the course of the movie, there’s always something about Chinese Roulette that’s there to make you feel really uncomfortable, and it does this in brilliant fashion throughout, making for a striking and often powerfully unsettling watch.
Above all, however, the relationship between the husband and wife and their young daughter is the most deeply uncomfortable part of the movie. While the two parents have spent years off with their respective lovers, this young girl has grown bitter and nasty, only to be met with mean-spirited coldness from her own parents.
There’s a lot about this movie that’s really bleak, but the viceral hatred that it presents between the girl and her parents, particularly between the daughter and mother, really stands out in the mind as the film’s most deeply unsettling and nasty element, something that indeed intrigued me, albeit less than delighted by.
Along with its bleak psychodrama, the film’s visuals and performances also add to that rather hopeless and depressing atmosphere. Set in a fairly empty and bare country house, the movie has a striking eeriness to it throughout that makes for a really unpleasant watch, while its piercingly slow pacing and often meandering structure adds to the confusion and unsettling nature of it all.
Secondly, all of the actors give performances that heighten the almost inhuman nature of their characters and the situation that unfolds. Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder ties all of this unnerving drama and psychological horror together brilliantly, but the collection of actors who all give off that same vibe through a variety of different styles is something that further deepens the sheer bleakness.
Now, with all that said, I still can’t say that this film is the world’s most enthralling and exciting watch. It’s powerfully unsettling and often an engrossing yet dark look into the extremes of dysfunctional families, but there are times when the movie goes a little off the rails, and doesn’t keep its feet close enough to the ground to let you stick with it at all times.
It’s a problem that leaves the story feeling a little incoherent over the course of the first two acts, but the screenplay generally ties things back together well here and there. However, the almost pretentious and certainly incomprehensible style of the film proves hugely damaging when it comes to the final act, in which the game of Chinese Roulette really gets going, and the darkest, scariest drama starts to unfold, yet you’re left a little bewildered as to what’s actually going on, while the film continues to sink deeper and deeper into incredibly abstract territory.
Overall, I founds Chinese Roulette an impressively unsettling movie that, while far from a pleasant watch, makes for an occasionally interesting and undoubtedly uncomfortable experience, furthered by strong direction and performances that are only undone by a generally incoherent story that finishes up in ridiculously abstract fashion, which is why I’m giving it a 7.4.