Directed by Jessica Hausner
Opens March 18 at Film Forum
A melodrama in theory but not in practice, Jessica Hausner’s historical adaptation, Amour Fou, is a strange beast. In early 19th century Berlin, Henrietta Vogel (Birte Schnöink) is a well-heeled wife (“I am my husband’s property,” she says) and mother of a young daughter. Henrietta’s placid demeanor covers a sense of unease, which ends up manifesting itself in a mysterious illness. Early in the film, she meets Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), a writer prone to saying things like, “I suffer not from death, but from life.” It turns out that Heinrich has an obsession with making a suicide pact with a woman and, well, this being an historical adaptation, a spoiler alert isn’t really necessary: after a good deal of deliberation, uncomfortable bourgeois socializing, and talk of melancholy, the two end up dying together.
The story has the potential to be emotionally bombastic, but Hausner’s careful direction keeps us at a determined remove. Tellingly, there’s only one (decidedly unsexy) reference to sex in the entire film: when she is sick in bed with her husband by her side, Henrietta’s doctor tells her to avoid intercourse. Hausner could easily embrace a painterly, swoony notion of romanticism, but instead she keeps the camera unnervingly still and eschews a musical score. All that being said, the film is not without its pleasures. The very first shot, of Henrietta setting a centerpiece of yellow flowers which physically obscure her in front of a blue wall, outlines the film in miniature: a beautiful, calm image that nevertheless hides our protagonist. Henrietta often seems trapped by her surroundings: patterned wallpapers and canopied beds are pretty but not inviting. When she does go out, as when she discusses the suicide pact with Heinrich in a verdant, sunny setting, the natural beauty makes a sly mockery of dark thoughts. We might expect Amour Fou to go over the top at some point, but the film remains mannered to the very end. While the crisp visual palette and lack of bombast is a refreshing rejection of costume-drama convention, one wonders what the film might be like if only Hausner allowed it a little more breathing room.