Amour Fou: "Do you want to die with me?"
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2014: Jessica Hausner creates a magnificent film at the heart of the paradoxes of bourgeois romanticism and conformism at the beginning of the 19th century
"We will be immortal together." At the beginning of the 19th century, romanticism brings to Europe a wave of excitement intertwining love and death at a time when the repercussions of the French Revolution spread like tremors through the extremely conformist high society of the Old Continent. It’s into this hot and cold mix that the Austrian director Jessica Hausner plunges with Amour fou [+see also:
film profile], presented today in the Un Certain Regard section of the 67th Cannes Film Festival. This magnificent film is presented as a puzzle around the tragic fate of the character of the historic writer Henrich von Kleist and the woman whom he tries to seduce to accompany him to his grave. An encounter in which this feature film unravels methodically and shrewdly the simplest of changes and the most surprising of misunderstandings, in a hushed and almost theatrical atmosphere from which the director draws a deafening intensity fuelled by exceptional aesthetics.
Berlin, 1811. The Vogel family is hosting a party. The harpsichord is playing, wistful tunes are being sung and the guests applaud with strict self-control. Among them is the poet Henrich (Christian Friedel), whose poems have attracted the attention of the lady of the house, Henriette (Mite Birte Schnöink). She is the prototype of the bourgeois housewife of the time, devoted to her husband ("I belong to my husband and I will never ask for freedom") and to her young only daughter, carefully managing the household and making separate beds (but joined) with her kind spouse who is obsessed by a job related to creating a tax for all social classes. Although he is also a member of this elite in which the straight jacket of conventions reigns, Henrich has an entirely different ambition: he wants to die ("the present is charmless and my future is bleak"). Having no words other than "destiny", "wounded soul" and "sufferings", he sets his sights on Henriette after his cousin Marie refuses to join him in a suicide pact. Using a declaration of love and his growing psychological power over the young woman ("you love nothing and no one loves you"), he affects Henriette to such an extent that she grows mysteriously ill. A session of hypnosis reveals to her husband her worries concerning her empty existence, before she is diagnosed with an incurable tumour. This news pushes Henriette to accept Henrich’s double suicide proposal. However, between misunderstanding and dithering, the sinister solution doesn’t offer itself up that easily...
In line with her portrayal of women in previous films (Lovely Rita [+see also:
film profile], Hotel [+see also:
film profile] and Lourdes [+see also:
interview: Jessica Hausner
film profile]), Jessica Hausner focuses on a character who is somewhat foreign to the world around her. Part of a mystery which is deftly portrayed in the social conformism of the time of Amour fou with its smothered emotions ("we say one thing and we feel another") and a very literary expression of feelings. Observing the reactions of her main characters as if in a mirror, the director nevertheless succeeds in producing intensity and depth through the reactions of two characters struggling in their own contradictions (the egocentric and manipulative man, and the woman with ambivalent desires). But beyond this plot dominated by psychological subtlety, the film also reproduces with surprising precision the customs of the Prussian bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 19th century, which comes to life thanks to the remarkable sets and costumes. The great talent of director of photography Martin Gschlacht and the pictorial sense of the composition of Jessica Hauner’s shots, in particular her mastery of depth of field, give the film a magnificent sense of stylised realism which makes Amour fou an accomplished work of art.
(Translated from French)