Director: Jessica Hausner
Cast: Christian Friedel, Birte Schnoeink, Stephan Grossmann
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Don’t be misled by the title. While ‘amour fou’, in the popular imagination, refers to steamy affairs and passionate flings, Jessica Hausner’s austere drama prefers to focus on the literal translation of the phrase: insane love. It is the true-life story of 19th century Prussian writer Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (Friedel), so disenchanted by life he sought a companion willing to join him in a suicide pact, and his attempts to persuade married hausfrau Henriette Vogel (Schnoeink) to be ‘the one’. Who says romance is dead, eh?
This is slim material for a film: barely an anecdote. Yet Austrian auteur Hausner, following her acclaimed Lourdes, zeroes in on the society that has created this strange alliance. With precise framing and subliminal movement, Hausner turns Heinrich and Henriette’s environment into a series of live-action paintings, the sense of claustrophobia accentuated by mirrors, curtains and other frames within frames: a recursion of conformity. It is a ritualised world where what little entertainment there is comes from sedate musical recitals; everybody watches in polite silence, but is no doubt inwardly screaming for a banging anthem they might hold their candles aloft for.
In such a topsy-turvy world, Heinrich is surely the only sane man, right? Well, not exactly. With Hausner telling the story from Henriette’s viewpoint, the morose writer becomes not a source of salvation but simply the least worst of two hellish options. Henriette is so hemmed in by her patriarchal world she even admits she lives only to be a wife and a mother, and yet Heinrich – played by Friedel as a pretentious, self-righteous killjoy – seems equally determined to box her in, insisting she chooses to die not through her own motives but simply to make his death grander and more romantic. Counter-cultural idealism, it seems, is just as orthodox as the status quo, and Hausner’s slyly feminist take gives both sides a kicking.
The director documents proceedings with baleful irony; there’s a welcome touch of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to the mood and there are bleak laughs to be had as the characters shuffle about in the back of frame for another of their awful concerts, or as Heinrich is repeatedly thwarted in its efforts to die. Yet so total is the repression of the characters that the film, shot mostly indoors, becomes stifling. No matter how thematically or formally interesting, Hausner seldom opens the doors to let the air in. It’s a film that could have done with a little more “amour” and a lot more “fou”.
Amour Fou is available to watch online on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.
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