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Thread: AMOUR FOU (Jessica Haussner 2014)

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    AMOUR FOU (Jessica Hausner 2014)

    Jessica Hausner: AMOUR FOU (2014)


    Double suicide ŕ la Kleist

    Heinrich von Kleist was an extremely important figure of early German romanticism, chiefly noted in his lifetime for his scandalous 1808 novella The Marquise of O. You wouldn't necessarily grasp that fact from Jessica Hausner's ironic and beautiful film Amour fou ("Mad Love"). Though Kleist is seen reading aloud from that novella at one point, he's not represented as very much of a literary man. The main focus is on his project of carrying out a joint suicide with a woman, which happened, historically in 1811, when he was 34. He shot the woman, and then himself. (He had to use two pistols.) Some details of this event have been changed. In the film Kleist is searching for a woman who will agree to end her life with him. He fails with the first lady, his cousin Marie (Sandra Hueller), who finds the proposal absurd. He succeeds on the second try with a married woman, Henriette Vogel, who has been diagnosed as having a terminal tumor. The twist is added in the film that after they've died, an autopsy reveals Henriette had nothing physically wrong.

    This is not historically true. It is also not true that Kleist was the instigator of the double suicide; Henriette Vogel apparently was. But the biggest change is that Kleist seems in the film a drab dabbler, not the active man who'd served in the Prussian army, then studied law and worked for the finance ministry and wrote drama, narrative, and philosophy. Hausner has a quaint, almost Brechtian way of doing a costume drama, where everyone is formal and stiff but none the less "real" for that; the effect at first reminded me of Roberto Rossellini's 1966 The Rise to Power of Louis XIV/La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV, but Amour fou is at once more conventional and more severely minimal, but also beautiful. The interiors are so perfectly composed and framed with such clear light they make one think of Vermeer.

    Everything is just so, but there's the feeling that actors stand on their marks and deliver, without much flavor. Notably Christian Friedel, as Heinrich, is dorky, and when he speaks he often stands with his hands motionless by his sides, like a puppet waiting to be more fully activated. Birte Schnoeink, as Henriette, has a warm and appealing face, however, and just as the real Kleist loved Henriette for her musical gifts, which he appreciated, in the film Henriette sings often, with keyboard accompaniment by her 12-year-old daughter, Pauline (Paraschiva Dragus), the pieces by Mozart, Beenhoven, and others playing out in real time. This adds to the ceremonial feeling of the film, which has that Brechtian, Rosseillinian feel that events are the more real because they are only being alluded to here, and their reality is elsewhere. There are always dogs running around in the house, calm, self-possessed, with a life and sensibility of their own, as if they are real, and the humans are only figures in a tableau.

    For me Amour fou was a pleasure to watch; it felt fresh and unique. But later one wondered if it might not seem drab and silly to others, or sound that way if described. It didn't work for Mike D'Angelo, who said in his review that proceedings were so flat that the pattern of the wallpaper became more interesting. (Perhaps it's not that the conversation is too drab but the wallpaper is too interesting.) One may wonder why Hausner chooses to present the "romantic" death-in-love of Heinrich von Kleist and Henrirette in this way, other than because she favors an austere, withholding style in her films, as seen in her previous one, Lourdes, an impressive but dry and slightly chilling depiction of a miracle cure.

    One answer is that this film is partly offered as a corrective to conventional, mistaken present-day views of romanticism. Here we see what at the time was a quintessentially romantic gesture performed by a key German romantic figure, but he and his associates still have one foot in the 18th century. This is underlined by repeated discussions between Kleist, Henirtte's husband, and others, showing many aristocrats still thought like aristocrats, rejecting egalitarian notions, not wanting to be taxed, insisting the poor are better off as slaves, and regarding the French revolution as a triumph of very bad ideas that, moreover, had failed miserably (not entirely untrue). Berlin upper bourgeois life, anyway, was a stolid thing. No bodice-ripping here. In fact, Henriette and Heinrich don't even make out, let alone have sex. Love is in the heart, not in the bed.

    But while the lovely mise-en-scene, authentically performecd music, and Vermeer-like interiors are a delight to the eye, Hausner is also clearly poking some fun at Kleist's whole project and his fits and starts in the effort to carry it out. She is taking into account that we might find these people in person a bit foolish, if tragically so. After all the two "lovers" (not even lovers in our sense), as Justin Chang puts it in his Variety review, "bumble their way toward their tragic destiny." History is sillier than it looks on paper. Tragedy isn't tragedy on the police blotter. And yet by anticipating these objections and revealing these fallacies, Hausner gives us an event more solid than a conventional tear-jerker. But, admittedly, the conventional tear-jerker is what most people want, not a movie like Amour fou.

    But the film is also dissecting the behavior of both Kleist and Henriette Vogel and debunking the idea that what is going on is "mad love." Kleist seems to have a screw loose, or at least an idee fixe. The actual Kleist's suicide may have been inexplicable, but the romantics typically followed a "sine wave" of feelings, flowing up and down between violent extremes of exultation and despair. Romanticism is also a very self-centered way of looking at things and both Kleist and Henriette are self-deluded for their own ends. She justifies dumping her perfectly nice husband Freidrich Louis Vogel (Stephan Grossmann) on the pretense that she is in love with Kleist, when she simply prefers a quick death to a slow painful one from illness. Meanwhile the (in this version) nerdy Kleist seems not so much to really "love" anyone as to want somebody to accompany him on the way out of this world.

    This depiction may not be fair to the historical Kleist. But that may not matter. The point may be to look at Kleist's tragic gesture -- and German romanticism-- with droll, fresh eyes.

    Amour fou, 96 mins., debuted at Cannes Critics Fortnight; many other festivals, including Toronto. Cinematography by Martin Gschlacht. Opened theatrically in France 4 February 2015 to good reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.8); UK 5 December. US (Film Forum) 18 March 2015. Metascore 69%.

    Note: The director's name is misspelled in the thread title. It's Hausner, not Haussner.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-13-2019 at 01:33 PM.


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