Despite what the title of Austrian director Jessica Hausner's fourth feature may suggest, there's not much amour and a whole lot of fou at stake in Amour Fou, a quietly disquieting questioning of social mores using as its premise the 19th-century double suicide of writer Heinrich von Kleist and his friend Henriette Vogel. Simultaneously deadpan and silently dramatic, wry and utterly despairing, humorous and dark, Amour Fou is a highly stylized period piece using Ms. Hausner's traditional observational techniques, extending the subterranean combat between the individual and the social through the eyes of Henriette (Birte Schnöink], an "invisible woman" if ever there was one.
Married to a treasury official (Stephan Grossmann) and stifling under the social mores of early 19th century Prussia that merely require of her to be a decent wife and mother, Henriette finds herself inevitably attracted to the morbid, sensual romanticism of Kleist (Christoph Friedel), offering a glimpse into a secret life of the senses she has never been able to externalize. Ms. Hausner's smart, formalist aesthetics see Henriette placed in beautifully arranged dioramas, flattened tableaux vivants that DP Martin Gschlacht films with a glacial attention at framing and focus; Ms. Schnöink is constantly placed in the forefront, suggesting a trompe-l'oeil hyper-realist 3D effect where she is the only actual living person in a two-dimensional composition.
This sense of life struggling to break free from the frame is heightened when Henriette is diagnosed with a possibly fatal tumor - leading her to accept Kleist's invitation for a double suicide, one that may represent love from her side but not so much from his. In fact, what she feels to be love from him is merely a series of clumsy misunderstandings made worse by the elaborate social mores of the period, confusing love with infatuation. Kleist's flights of language, initially meant for his beloved cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), obfuscate the fact that Henriette is for him a mere means to an end, as much a prisoner of his designs as she was in her unhappy marriage.
Love has no room in this tightly wound society where pragmatism seems to defy emotion - and that dovetails nicely with the sense that Ms. Hausner's stately formalist set-ups leech all life and emotion from her film. She is indeed a cerebral filmmaker, but Amour Fou is by design much more claustrophobic and bloodless than her previous Lourdes, and as such also a touch harder to swallow on a first sitting. But Ms. Hausner remains a director as interesting as (and inexplicably much less lauded than) her currently working compatriots such as Ulrich Seidl or Michael Haneke.
Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, France 2014
Cast Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel, Stephan Grossmann, Sandra Hüller, Holger Handtke, Barbara Schnitzler, Alissa Wilms, Paraschiva Dragus
Director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner; cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (colour); designer Katharina Wöppermann; costumes Tanja Hausner; editor Karina Ressler; producers Mr. Gschlacht, Antonin Svoboda, Bruno Wagner, Bady Minck, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu and Philippe Bober; production companies Coop99 Filmproduktion in co-production with Amour Fou Luxembourg, Essential Filmproduktion and Parisienne de Production, with the collaboration of ORF, ARTE France Cinéma and Westdeutscher Rundfunk
Screened March 17th 2015, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)
[AMO] Amour Fou - Trailer with english subtitles from Amour Fou on Vimeo.