PRINT March 2015


Jessica Hausner’s Amour fou

Jessica Hausner, Amour fou, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink) and Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel).

The tide buries us all in the end.
—a Maltese guard, in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009)

ALLES IN ORDNUNG, the German phrase for “everything’s okay,” implies that all is in order—tidy and organized, in its proper Teutonic place. The young female protagonists of Jessica Hausner’s cinema attempt to impose such order on their surroundings, even as murder, mishap, and malady disrupt the strictly regulated Ordnung of their respective settings: a suburban Viennese home ruled by punitive parents (Lovely Rita [2001]); an alpine inn managed by unsmiling task-masters (Hotel [2004]); a pilgrims’ lodge overseen by a stringent nurse (Lourdes); and a pre-Biedermeier household governed by a tax functionary (Amour fou). The eponym of the Austrian auteur’s first feature—a rebel called Rita, whose only cause is her own restlessness—responds to the freedom she has won after slaying her mom and dad by holing up in a hotel Zimmer much like the bedroom they had frequently locked her in. Espying a painting that is a little askew, the sullen teen rises from her bed to straighten the tableau, much as she had previously realigned a slightly awry Klimt print at a neighbor’s house where she babysits. The heroine of Hotel, a trainee in hospitality, surveys a conference room for readiness, asserting her exactitude by adjusting the angle of a pen lying on the table just so. These punctilious corrections can be read as allegories of Hausner’s own precisionist method, in which compositions are storyboarded, edits deliberated, soundscapes highly designed, and details of clothing, locale, and comportment premeditated—an approach one might call, following Robert Bresson’s phrase for his own assiduous aesthetic system, “mettre en ordre.”

The radiant opening image of Hausner’s masterpiece, Amour fou (which premiered at Cannes this past May), also involves a putting in order: Henriette Vogel, her face obscured behind a spray of yellow jonquils, arranges the long-stemmed spring flowers into a formal array. She informs her husband that among the evening’s guests will be a famous poet, who, we soon infer, as she expounds upon his tale of a marquise who falls in love with the man who impregnated her while she was unconscious, is none other than Heinrich von Kleist. (Éric Rohmer’s film of Kleist’s Die Marquise von O [1976] would make for an ideal double bill with Amour fou.) In one of Hausner’s trademark symmetries, Henriette will again assemble a bouquet, a little over an hour later in the film—branches bearing red winterberries, suggesting the mortality with which she is now faced, having been diagnosed with an incurable if indeterminate disease. Flowers served as a burgeoning metaphor for the German Romantics—as exemplified by Novalis’s blaue Blume—and Hausner knowingly makes them a central motif in her demolition of said Romanticism, from the violet that is ecstatically trampled to death in the Mozart lied performed in the musicale that opens the film to the primroses later invoked in a Beethoven song and the blooms whose fading Henriette confesses to fear while under hypnosis by the mesmerist who attempts to cure her condition. At the moment a soprano gives voice to Mozart’s flower merrily perishing under the foot of an obtuse beauty—“And so I die, then let me die for her,” she sings—Henriette’s gaze meets the persistent perusal of her guest, the rather brazen Kleist, their fates interlocking in that exchange of glances.

Finding life cruel and meaningless—“The world itself troubles my soul,” Kleist tells his cousin Marie—the writer has determined to die in a double suicide with a kindred soul who loves him. Having been rebuffed by Marie (and, one infers, several others), the poet, fully in love with easeful Death, settles upon the unsuspecting hausfrau Henriette, pressing his case for a dual demise—he will shoot her first, then himself, he later helpfully explains—a proposal she finds initially absurd, then, after she learns she is about to die anyway, increasingly seductive. Kleist pursues his objective with a persistence that reminds one of the obsessive crusade of his character Michael Kohlhaas, though Kohlhaas’s intransigent search for justice assumes a tragic dignity, whereas Kleist’s campaign seems merely petulant and solipsistic. “He thinks only of himself,” Henriette scoffs when her husband inquires whether she could live with the poet, and in the famous love letter Kleist composes for their last night on earth, the celebration of his death-mate instead turns into a testament to his own possessiveness. When he learns that Marie is getting married to a Frenchman, he moans, “Why isn’t anything going right for me?” However, Hausner is too subtle and skeptical an artist merely to proffer the feminist critique of Prussian patriarchy that several critics have discerned in Amour fou. Among the film’s many triumphs is its portrait of Henriette’s loving husband, Friedrich Louis, whose affirmation in the face of her imminent death and possible infidelity—“Now it is my turn to be loyal to you. I will try everything to keep you”—movingly suggests not marital domination but a supplication to the fates to keep Henriette alive, and a readiness to free her to find happiness in the meantime.

To her carefully tended ends, Hausner has thoroughly researched the true story of Kleist’s suicide only to ignore, suppress, and revise various facts, and to treat others as arguable or ambiguous. She chooses not to portray Kleist’s dire, peripatetic existence, noting only in passing that he has lost his state allowance. Perhaps to avoid mitigating Kleist’s deepening melancholia, the film never registers—aside from conveying the writer’s long-held views that life is cruel and fate capricious—that he was in his final years greatly tried both in body and spirit, suffering illness, debt, and despair over what he felt was a galling lack of respect from his contemporaries. (When Henriette’s severe mother, scandalized by the premise of The Marquise of O, avers that she prefers Goethe, Hausner does not reveal Kleist’s reaction, but the comment would have lanced a festering wound: Kleist obsessed over the opinion of Goethe, who had once expressed “horror and revulsion” at something in Kleist’s works.) Similarly, Hausner’s portrayal of Henriette Vogel seems to contradict the few facts that are known about her, ignoring especially the impressive intellectual and musical talents that first attracted Kleist. Henriette’s singing of a Beethoven lied, accompanied on fortepiano by her little daughter, Pauline, is tentative and amateurish—and her views of political and religious matters appear passively conventional; that she so readily identifies herself as her husband’s chattel and submits that only a redeemed soul earns the afterlife might have appalled the freethinking Kleist. To any quibbles over historical accuracy, Hausner contends that she is interested not in a standard biopic but in the subject of double suicide, of which Kleist’s demise offers a most intriguing example. (Amour fou was first conceived as a film about two contemporary Norwegian teens who killed themselves together.)

Tonal control has sometimes eluded Hausner despite her formidable command; the calculated ambiguities of her horror-thriller Hotel quickly turn airless and obvious, and the love story in Lourdes between a handsome Maltese guard and a pilgrim paralyzed by multiple sclerosis diminishes the rigor of her admirably objective approach. The tone of Amour fou modulates imperceptibly from drolly satiric to poignantly tragic; Hausner’s management of tenor and design is fastidious. (The director’s close collaborator and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht continues to have a weakness for finicky rack focus, though his zooms have become more graceful since the self-conscious flourishes of Lovely Rita.) Every composition seems sprucely groomed for precise effect, Hausner’s evocation of the Empire era evading the usual parade of perukes while nevertheless reveling in period fashion and decor—high-waisted dresses, trompe l’oeil doors, and infinite shades of vermilion and emerald. Hausner’s fondness for curtains as signifiers in her highly designed sanctums (e.g., the floral brocade shades and matching pillows in Lovely Rita that bespeak bourgeois aspiration; the mysterious drapes in Hotel and Lourdes behind which murder or miracles may occur) here manifests itself in the Vogels’ canopied his-and-her beds set at oblique angles and in the burgundy swag that frames Empire interiors in which privileged members of the alte Regime sip tea and decry the new tax laws, imported from France after the Revolution, that apply to aristocrat and peasant alike. (One of Hausner’s auteurist signatures is a Bertoluccian imperative to include a dance sequence in each of her films, here a candlelit waltz.)

Hausner has described her compositions in Amour fou as tableaux vivants modeled on Renaissance paintings and Vermeer, and, indeed, each pristine image seems to conjure a Ghirlandaio here, a Marie-Denise Villers there. The actors, too, seem chosen as much for their painterly aspects as for their emotional range and way with the German language. The Vogels’ silently hovering maid, stoop-shouldered from years of curtsying servitude, arrives straight out of Pieter de Hooch in her high white bonnet, and the pale, watchful Pauline is the very image of Vermeer’s jonge vrouw. Hausner’s sardonic, anti-Romantic tone is greatly aided by the performance of Christian Friedel, who appeared in another Austrian period film, The White Ribbon (2009), directed by Hausner’s teacher and mentor, Michael Haneke (from whom she has apparently taken a mastery of offscreen space and a coolly objective tone). As the self-absorbed and raptly absurd Kleist, Friedel physically resembles the writer and assumes in his simpering solipsism the pouty appearance of a baby in a waistcoat.

While criticizing Kleist, Hausner maintains his sense of tragic irony, in which mistakes of speech and understanding generate confusion and calamity. The gravity with which the director portrays the murder-suicide in the forest at Kleiner Wannsee—again, contrary to historical account, which suggests that Kleist and Vogel were tipsily cheerful in their self-willed deaths—alludes to the denouement of another tale of suicide, Bresson’s Le diable probablement (1977). Like Bresson’s suicidal Charles, who wishes to express “sublime thoughts” that have come to him after overhearing a Mozart concerto, only to be shot when his companion carries out their deadly pact, Henriette is similarly silenced, her reconsideration of her covenant with Kleist cut short by a bullet from his pistol, her final phrase—“Heinrich, what I wanted to say—” left hanging in the autumn air. Hausner’s crisply elliptical coda extends the Kleistian rhetoric of misapprehension by imparting that Henriette’s terminal diagnosis was incorrect, the amour she had convinced herself she felt for the writer a mortal folly. In a final “putting in order” that attains a pitch of emotional and formal grandeur, Hausner ends her film with yet another performance of the Beethoven lied “Where the Mountains So Blue,” performed solo by the now motherless Pauline. “If only I could be with you eternally, eternally,” the child sings plaintively to her “distant beloved,” the parent who resides “in the restful valley” to which Kleist has heedlessly delivered her.

Amour fou opens at Film Forum in New York on March 18.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.