Cast: Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel, Stephan Grossman
Director: Jessica Hausner
Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
"It was hell that gave me this half-talent of mine: Heaven grants a whole one or none at all."
This is a line once uttered by poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist; a gloomy, possibly mentally ill gentleman who fired a bullet at his friend Henriette Vogel and then turned the pistol on himself. Writer-director Jessica Hausner uses the foundation of this real-life tale to create something closer to a black comedy of social conventions than the grim tale of love and misery one might expect. Of course, there's plenty of doom and gloom here; exemplified by the tight corsets, hermetically sealed interiors, and drab dinner parties, but there's also a sly daftness to the behavior that both represents a snapshot of 18th Century German life while also subverting it. In a way, Amour Fou wraps our perceived expectations about doomed period-piece romances inside formally daring mise-en-scène that derives comic possibilities out of upper-class malaise.
Hausner's film takes place in 1811 Berlin, and introduces us to Henrich (Christian Friedel) a narcissistic author who yearns for a partner who will join him in a suicide pact, and Henriette (Birte Schnöink), a woman married to a docile businessman (Stephan Grossman) whose straight-laced demeanor suggests a rather passionless union born more out of societal need than love. Henriette is an unabashed fan of Henrich's writing, and yet she balks at his suicide proposal on multiple occasions, to which the man responds with varying degrees of dismay and teenage-like rejection. Things change, however, once Henriette falls ill with a possibly life-threatening disease. Her thinking is that by joining Henrich in his myopic death wish, she will somehow face the end with a grandiose flourish.
Amour Fou is less about love or death or even passion, but rather a coy deconstruction of the self-obsessed romantic hero often found in period dramas pining for his one true love. Henrich (whose portrayed by Friedel as a whimpering, pathetic loser) is using the convention of romanticism as a means of feeding his own inflated ego. The fact that he not only tries to woo Henriette, but also his own cousin (who often placates him with comic relish), is indicative of his seemingly never-ending capacity for narcissism. Meanwhile, Schnöink's Henriette is an altogether more mysterious character; by turns submissive and fiercely independent, with a longing for more excitement than her rigid lifestyle allows while still remaining cautious about taking too bold of a risk. At times, she seems aware of Henrich's childish pessimism, while at others, there's a sense that she's being carefully coerced into something she doesn't fully understand. To their credit, neither Hauser nor Schnöink completely explains what motivates Henriette, leaving it up to the audience to formulate their own interpretation.
In terms of formal style, Hauser shows a real gift for static long shots in which the stifling behavior of the characters match the aristocratic dioramas. Many scenes play out against detailed German interiors with characters sitting politely, sipping tea, and engaging in awkwardly formal conversations that often hint at more lascivious intentions. Elitism, taxation, and literature are discussed at length, often with pompous disdain or banal neutrality. There's something toxically funny about how ridiculous these conversations are--mired in faux politeness and sluggish domesticity--that deftly aligns with Hauser's rigid aesthetic. The director presents situations and characters that could be read as deadly serious, but then slightly heightens the absurdity until you realize that what you're actually watching is a revisionist historical farce. Surely, mental illness and suicide are no laughing matter, and Hauser never seems to be mocking her characters, but there's a definite jab being made at the idea of lavish period piece romanticism (especially in regards to doomed lovers) that makes the film simultaneously provocative and humorous.
Amour Fou is such a claustrophobic encapsulation of high privilege, repression, and aristocratic good manners that by the time the ending comes, it still manages to shock despite the inevitability. One desperately hopes that Henriette, and to a lesser degree Henrich, can break free of their oppressive milieu and lead more fulfilling lives. The sensation of ennui that pervades the entirety of the film becomes almost unbearable near the end, where the combination of monotonous misery and deadpan humor culminates in something close to poignancy. Henriette, despite the inflexible culture surrounding her, feels like a real person; a disfranchised woman living in a patriarchal society in which her worth is predicated on the whims of a delusional emasculated male, which makes her ultimate downfall all the more tragic. Given the film's overriding examination of lives governed by suffocating social rules, the ending is a surprisingly powerful reminder that human suffering (not to mention laughing in the face of misery), goes far beyond high-class austerity.