Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is ostensibly billed as a “romantic comedy”, in what seems more than a little incongruous for a tale involving double suicide. But a Romantic comedy it is indeed, in both subject and form; set in the Romantic era in the austere surrounds of Prussian-era Berlin and involving a darkly comic retelling of the infamous double suicide of author Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel in 1811. Composed almost entirely of static tableaux vivants, Amour Fou is a formally rigorous period piece crafted with exacting precision by Austrian writer-director Hausner, perfectly evoking the claustrophobia and austerity of the aristocratic circle Kleist ultimately forced his exit from.
We are first introduced to Henriette Vogel, the very picture of the subservient wife to her statesman husband. She’s the kind of woman, as Hausner herself describes, who at first “appears to be soft and nice, and then you figure out that she’s squeezing her hands into fists in her pockets.” 1 She becomes acquainted with poet Kleist at a small upper class social gathering, where she reveals to him her fondness for his novella, The Marquise of O, which tells of a widowed noblewoman who mysteriously becomes pregnant. Kleist, who is on the desperate search for a partner in death, perhaps senses this as an indication of darker impulses simmering under Henriette’s respectable surface and chooses her as his next target. At first, she declines, visibly disturbed by such a request, but eventually concedes after falling mysteriously ill and being diagnosed with either a hysterical Frauenkrankheit (“woman illness”) or a lethal tumour. The rest, as they say, is (literary) history, the remainder of the film following the fraught lead-up to Kleist and Henriette’s tragic final act.
A humorous treatment of the real-life suicide of a deeply troubled and much admired individual such as Kleist (one of the most important figures in the entirety of German literature) may seem in poor taste to some, this writer included, but Hausner manages to succeed in creating a world so stylised and contained in its own diegesis that it becomes clear that the historical source material is merely used as a point of departure for Hausner to explore her own ideas around love. Hausner’s interest lies in the “banal, slightly ridiculous side” of Kleist’s quest for a love-driven double suicide, in that he asked several different people before finally having to settle on someone who thought they would die soon anyway; the reality of the situation absurdly at odds with the romantic ideal Kleist intended the act to embody.
Amour Fou is essentially a great formal exercise in reaching a perfect harmony of tone and subject. All of the film’s elements: the Vermeer-esque costumes and set design, the austere framing, the static shots, the stilted formality of the dialogue and the deliberate performances work together to achieve this effect. The film is a testament to Hausner’s distinctive vision and talent, marking her a director who sits comfortably alongside fellow countrymen Ulrich Seidl and Daniel Hoesl as part of a fascinating formalist current in contemporary Austrian cinema.