An event that could hardly be described as a laughing matter somehow yields a dryly amusing and characteristically layered reflection on the absurdity of what humans call love in “Amour fou,” Jessica Hausner’s slow-building portrait of the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist and his friend Henriette Vogel, and the fateful steps and decisions that precipitated their 1811 suicide pact. A master of tonal and thematic ambiguity who deals in spare, meticulously composed tableaux, the Austrian writer-director gradually locates the emotional pulse in a picture that plays less like a doomed romance than a seriocomic anatomy of one, subjecting its characters and their bubble of high privilege to sharply critical yet quietly affecting scrutiny. Hausner’s admirers will be carried along by the exquisite rigor of the filmmaking, but insofar as this dialogue-driven chamber piece isn’t quite as richly suggestive as her 2009 drama, “Lourdes,” it may encounter a more respectful than ardent embrace on and beyond the festival circuit.
Never fully appreciated in his lifetime for his darkly subversive, politically charged and emotionally probing body of work as a poet, playwright and novelist, Kleist did secure considerable notoriety by not only choosing the exact moment and manner of his demise, but also persuading Vogel, who had been diagnosed as terminally ill, to join him in death. They sealed their pact on Nov. 21, 1811, when, on the shores of Berlin’s Little Wannslee lake, Kleist shot Vogel and then turned the pistol on himself. While it takes a few imaginative liberties with the facts, Hausner’s screenplay rightly presents this tragic outcome as the culmination of a death wish that the author had apparently been nursing for quite some time.
“Would you care to die with me?” Kleist (Christian Friedel) asks early on of his cousin Marie (Sandra Hueller), who, along with several other women to whom the writer apparently posed this question, sensibly refuses. The first one to even contemplate saying yes is Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), who, along with her husband (Stephan Crossmann), a government official, becomes acquainted with Kleist at the private salons where they often gather. Sweet and demure, and prone to making such gently naive declarations as “I am my husband’s property, and I should never dare to demand freedom,” Henriette nonetheless finds herself unusually taken with Kleist’s readings from his scandalous 1808 novella “The Marquise of O,” an initial indication of the weirder impulses flickering beneath her well-behaved surface.
Kleist eventually confronts Henriette with his calmly deranged proposal, in the process informing her that everything she derives happiness and fulfillment from in life — her husband and their young daughter (Paraschiva Dragus), if not necessarily her bitter scold of a mother (Barbara Schnitzler) — is effectively a sham. While Henriette recoils from Kleist’s outrageous entreaty, it’s the curious achievement of “Amour fou” that, even as it passes uneventfully from one polite, serenely staged conversation to the next, we sense the power of suggestion at work as an idea begins to take root. Mysteriously, it’s around this time that Henriette begins to experience fainting spells; a doctor (Holger Handtke) is called in, and although he can find nothing physically wrong with her, an outside expert concludes that she has a malignant tumor, leaving her with very little time to live — and suddenly, that much more receptive to Kleist’s offer.
It spoils little to note that the film follows Kleist and Henriette through to the bitter end, presenting the terminus of their story with a blunt, unsentimental finality. What really fascinates is the comedy of errors — and manners — that Hausner stages along the way, commenting sardonically on the various mishaps, misunderstandings and missed connections that ensue as these two lovers (although no acts of consummation are shown or even implied) bumble their way toward their tragic destiny. Much of the satire is directed at Kleist, nicely played by Friedel as a tortured, self-absorbed fatalist who earnestly courts one woman after another with his bizarre request, making lofty declarations of love even as his actions feel entirely self-serving. Yet the passive, indecisive Henriette is arguably no better, quietly putting aside her devoted husband (sympathetically played by Crossmann) while half-heartedly attempting to convince herself that she loves this new suitor simply because of the escape that he offers.
Its title notwithstanding, then, “Amour fou” emerges as less a tale of mad, forbidden passion than a disquietingly funny essay on the human capacity for self-deception, even in the name of pursuing the highest of ideals. While this is hardly a theme that applies strictly to the film’s specific era, the 19th-century mores on display come under especially withering critique, from the ignorance and unreliability of pre-modern medicine (“So Mama doesn’t have to die?” little Dragus deadpans when it’s revealed that Henriette’s terminal diagnosis may have been premature) to the greed and moral cluelessness of the upper classes, chafing as they are against the Prussian government’s push to impose taxes on all citizens — an unheard-of concept at the time that was attributed to the pernicious influence of the French Revolution.
Hausner’s cinema already appeals to a fairly self-selecting arthouse niche, and that seems unlikely to change with “Amour fou,” which actively encourages a distanced, analytical approach rather than an immersive one. Key to this are the simplicity of the period mise-en-scene and the static, presentational style of the filmmaking; each scene is staged as a tableau vivant, shot in crisp, deep-focus, high-definition images (by Hausner’s regular d.p., Martin Gschlacht), and marked by an abundance of medium shots in which the characters’ movements have been blocked with great deliberation within the frame. All this, plus the heightened formality of the dialogue, combines to create an effect that feels at once mundane, realistic yet strangely artificial. Imagine a Jane Austen drawing-room comedy as directed by Michael Haneke and you’re halfway there.
Still, key elements are in place that keep the film from feeling bloodless or airless, and even lend it the occasional flush of feeling. Musical evenings are a regular fixture of the Vogels’ active social calendar, and the classical pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and others (usually sung by Henriette or her daughter, with square-piano accompaniment) often play out at length onscreen, punctuating the film’s dramatic rhythms while offering unmistakably poignant commentary on the action. Most valuable of all is Schnoeink, who not only looks lovely in a series of high-waisted dresses (the costumes were designed by Tanja Hausner), but brings a luminous, captivating quality to the role of a woman whose true thoughts, feelings and desires seem to be forever and deliberately evading the viewer’s grasp.