Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner, 2014)
Amour Fou screens at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, March 8 and Monday March 9. For additional ticketing information, please click here.
You can probably view the suicide pact between Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel as (1) a profound statement on love and the insecurities that the bourgeois faced following the French Revolution or (2) the result of a bored privileged class imbuing its taut social structure with a degree of theatrics. Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou thankfully deconstructs the latter, denying audiences a conventional romance film between lovers of distinct social classes for something much more darker and humorous. A feminist deconstruction of privileged class with a Kubrickian eye for visual composition, this introduction to Jessica Hausner is immense.
With death on his mind, Romantic poet Kleist (Christian Friedel) entertains the idea of a suicide pact with his cousin. She politely declines the absurd offer and leaves Kleist with a wounded ego. That ego is further deflated when Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), a married woman of distinct privilege, doesn’t buy his death-as-liberation spiel. Kleist is operating like a salesman with a pitch, effectively rendering any sense of romanticism in the agreement null. Yet Henriette entertains the offer, if only because the stifling social class that she’s ingrained in has never remotely offered anything so ludicrous and filled with the promise of romantic fulfillment. And in this society, where women freely give up agency, it’s Henriette who humors it. This is only advanced by the news that she has developed a terminal disease, with the promise of a moment of poetic romanticism seeming all the more vital and attractive.
Hausner’s compositions are so rigid that one feels the overbearing presence of structure weighing down on its character. The characters in her frames remain stiflingly still, discussing social upheaval following the French Revolution with pronounced anxiety, as if afraid that a sudden movement will spur revolt. In Henriette we see futile efforts at breaking out of that confinement – moments where we see her sing to her daughter’s piano playing indicate a fleeting attempt to accept a degree of agency in a community and society that prohibits it. Not surprisingly, most of Henriette’s actions are informed by the miscalculations of men around her: an unfounded diagnosis by her doctor, the uselessness of a hypnotist’s therapy, and her ultimate death at the hands of a man who peddles love rather than living it. For a film that boasts a great deal of humor through its acute deconstruction of the traditions of bourgeois society, the forceful impact of its conclusion is a startling reminder of how the consequences of absurdity tend to be levied on the fairer sex. After all, it is Kleist who is afforded a privileged position about literature’s literati, whereas the tragedy of Henriette is a footnote.