A sober portrait of the woman accompanying Heinrich von Kleist into the hereafter, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou isn’t quite as mad as it should be.
Every Man Dies Aloneby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Loosely based on the suicide pact between German poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist and his kindred spirit Henriette Vogel, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou isn’t the rush of romance, tormented souls and angst you might expect. Filmed in a sober, spare yet strangely theatrical style, Hausner’s film is worlds away from Hotel, Lovely Rita or Lourdes. And yet focussing on Henriette rather than her more illustrious partner-in-crime, Amour Fou is still very much a film about woman. If anything, it’s more comparable to Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition – with another strangely indecisive female psyche under the microscope. Only here Hausner twists the truth of a woman who, dying from uterine cancer, wished to end her life, turning her into a psychosomatic failed romantic, still hemming and hawing as the pistol is fired. Not so much a passionate love as a desperate kind of madness.
Hosting a party in her home, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) meets Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel of The White Ribbon) for the first time. She’s taken by his latest novella The Marquise of O, in which a woman, raped while unconscious and determined to marry her rapist in order to save her reputation, discovers that the angel who saved her during a siege is the very devil that violated her. And it’s enough to stoke the flames of Kleist’s desire to find a partner to end his life with. He pleads with his cousin and kindred spirit Marie (Sandra Hüller), who loves life too much and urges Heinrich to look beyond the evil men do to each other and find a path to happiness. But while Kleist believes he’s found another soul-mate in Henriette, it’s only when she’s pronounced terminally ill that her joy for life and her love for husband and daughter fade away, sending the hapless pair on a precarious date with death.
By itself, the idea of shifting the story of a joint suicide away from Heinrich von Kleist and onto his lesser known counterpart Henriette Vogel is a stroke of genius. But despite a decent performance from Christian Friedel, Kleist comes across as a petulant imp with a death wish, asking anyone who’ll listen if they’ll accompany him across death’s door. Like Dietrich Brüggemann equally spare Stations Of The Cross, there’s a pervasive mocking tone that belittles the poet’s torments and turns the heroine of Amour Fou into something of a muddled milksop. Like the musical interludes that punctuate the film – Mozart’s Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese Stand and Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte – it’s a Romantic yearning for death that doesn’t seem to come into reality’s orbit for either of them.
While much of Hausner’s Amour Fou seems to do battle between sumptuous natural lighting à la Barry Lyndon and an irrepressible digital greyness, there is an interesting counter-argument to the Romantic lure of death in cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s framing. Claustrophobic (with barely a window in sight) and stagey (with characters pushed up against a wall and mercilessly filmed by a head-on camera), there’s a symmetry that reflects in Henriette’s domestic space her state of mind, as we move from the orderly symmetry of the opening shot, in which she is arranging flowers to oddly asymmetrical shots of half windows and off-kilter paintings as she descends into despondency and melancholy. After her death however, when her daughter Pauline takes up the spinett, the scene is perfectly centred – as if an unknown destabilising canker has finally been excised. But there’s another beautiful scene as Kleist and Henriette dance a quadrille, gliding in front of the camera indeterminately but gracefully – like beautifully costumed pawns moving at will to Hausner’s story.
There’s a lot of post-Revolutionary debate about liberty and equality as well as new tax laws to be imposed on everyone from farmer to aristocrat, but it’s mostly male talk, disjointed from the suicidal delusions of Kleist and Henriette. Instead, her time is given over to singing, dancing and embroidery, and she’s content with her lot as her husband’s chattel, disdainful of successful women such as the celebrated opera singer held hostage to the good will of the public. Henriette only becomes aware of the possibilities beyond her good marriage and the obedient love of a well-mannered daughter when Kleist reveals her lovelessness to her – and it’s the spiritual crisis which sparks her fits and faints. But it’s a disappointingly pale melancholy that leads her into a suicide pact seemingly against her will. A muddled affectation of female discouragement and despair, Amour Fou is at its best in a moment of botched male agency – in a wood beside the Wannsee where Kleist shoots Henriette mid-hesitation before turning the pistol on himself, only for it to malfunction twice on his own temple. Whether an act of madness or shameless Romanticism, Amour Fou is still a crazy kind of love. Wild passion perhaps, but tamed.
Amour Fou is released on 6th February 2015 in the UK