Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is a visually-intriguing period drama based on the 1811 suicide pact made between German writer Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, played here by Christian Friedel and Birte Schnöink respectively. Hausner takes some liberties with the facts surrounding their deaths – judging by Wikipedia’s take on events, at least; I can’t say I was familiar with the story before watching – and turns the joint suicide into a bizarre tragi-comic event instigated by the self-centred von Kleist, who seems driven by a staggering level of vanity rather than the need to make a defining poetic statement about love; it is believed that the terminally ill Vogel was actually the driving force behind the pact in real life, and that von Kleist agreed to kill her before killing himself, but the switcharound certainly makes for an interesting story.
The deaths at the end are coloured by the kind of deadpan comedy you’d expect to see in a film by the Coens, and there are flashes of this kind of dry wit throughout the film, ocassionally breaking past the formality. Each scene is meticulously staged: Hausner creates a series of tableaux vivants, many of which are exquisitely but sparsely decorated; much consideration has clearly been given to the colour of the furnishings and the costumes, as well as the lighting, and Hausner’s work regularly brings to mind the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. It’s also a film that has been thoroughly blocked and rehearsed, with the characters placed sparingly across the frame as they debate issues of the day, while even the few scenes set in the outdoors have a stagey feel. And oh, those debates! Amour Fou‘s main subtext is concerned with the growing influence of France on Prussia, and many of the aristocratic characters that appear complain at length about the new income and property-based tax that they will soon have to pay, which is based upon the existing model used by the neighbouring country post-revolution. The replacement of Prussia’s serfdom by a new, more equal system is cause for much concern, but it’s dealt with in amusing fashion by the director, with one elderly lady complaining in her lavish surroundings that she’ll have to fire her valet as a result.
Schnöink is an enigmatic presence throughout. Her character is said to be terminally ill, but there is much doubt as to whether she is suffering from a nervous disorder, a tumour (as one doctor suggests) or, per the title, a kind of fatalistic lovesickness. Gradually her longing for von Kleist increases, though his attitude to her seems to change with the wind; he is indifferent at times, and Henrietta isn’t even his preferred choice as a suicide partner, though there are scenes in which he appears creepily enraptured, such as during a waltz that takes place shortly before the end. Amour Fou is slow and beautiful, and after a while the pace becomes quite hypnotic, while the aesthetically-pleasing visual style was enough to hold my interest. Even when the characters were launching into their umpteenth tax-related chat.
Directed by: Jessica Hausner.
Written by: Jessica Hausner.
Starring: Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel, Stephan Grossmann.
Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht.
Editing: Karina Ressler.
Music: Cast members.
Running Time: 94 minutes.