Painting. That was the first word that came to mind. One day after Mr. Turner blended the arts of film and of painting in its magnificent lighting with a painterly stroke, Jessica Hausner upped the ante in the Un Certain Regard section with a film that should be regarded as the festival’s first true masterpiece. Her film has a more linear style, if we are talking paint on canvas, as opposed to the painterliness of Mike Leigh’s film. Captured in an amazing light, the Austrian director creates what can maybe best be characterized as a series of still lifes or tableaux, often complete with attributes that characterize such genres, like fruit and dogs. A tale of love and despair in a milieu (Berlin bourgeoisie in the 19th century) where emotion and passion are kept under wraps so well that any conversation or gathering indeed resembles a still life.
The life of Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink), married and mother of a young daughter, is shaken up by two events. The first is being introduced to writer Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), a man who has what is in all probability the worst pick-up line in history: will you die with me? He is the romantic poet for whom life on earth is a constant burden, and whose idea of the highest expression of love is to die together. After striking out at first with his cousin Marie, part of the same social circle, his second attempt to reach his ideal is directed at Henriette. She will hear nothing of it, until the second event happens: she falls ill, with symptoms mostly consisting of spasms and blackouts. Her physician at first thinks it’s nothing serious, but a second opinion identifies her illness as cancer or a fatal ulcer. She does not have long, the doctor informs her husband. This sad tiding makes her re-evaluate her answer to Heinrich, much to his chagrin because her change of heart is for all the wrong reasons. Henriette’s peculiar attraction to the ideas of Heinrich progressively convinces her, however, that a chosen death may indeed be preferable.
I deliberately say ‘chosen’ here, because in the context of the story, the debate of fate versus free will is often brought up, not only in Henriette’s predicament, but also in discussions held by the high-society elite Henriette and her husband (Stephan Grossmann) are part of. These discussions mainly deal with the Prussian tax reform of the time, and whether social class is a matter of fate or choice, but act as a parallel for the debate within Henriette: is premature death her fate, and can she choose to speed it up or, later, avoid it altogether when a possible cure presents itself?
All of this does not sound too lighthearted, and it is certainly not a laugh-a-minute affair, but the film is not without its humor, and can in fact be regarded as a droll comedy of sorts. Stiff and suffocating as the milieu may be, and as much as Henriette and Heinrich may suffer in this setting, the romantic notions of suicide are more than once made light of with a deft touch by Hausner, in just the right doses to make it not a completely dour story, but without taking away the seriousness of its subject. Hausner perfectly captures the somewhat contradictory ridiculousness of Heinrich being obsessed with the perfection of a shared death for love, yet asking around until he has found his ‘victim’. The dialogue is stilted and elaborate, the approach detached, but the end result is a film that can make for a passionate debate about free will and our own role in the universe and how much we matter.
It’s interesting that this film was kept out of the main competition, as it sure would have been a worthy entrant. One has to wonder if Thierry Frémaux did not want to embarrass jury president Jane Campion, whose somewhat similarly themed Bright Star from a few years back is clearly inferior to Miss Hausner’s work. Perhaps the latter’s rigid formalism works better for the subject than Campion’s straight-up poetic approach, although there are more than just flourishes of someone like Raúl Ruiz here, even if it’s all rather austere (Austrian sensibilities are more reserved than Chilean, I guess). Less melancholic too, but I couldn’t help being reminded of the Chilean master in Hausner’s magnificent use of blocking and framing, and her interesting deep focus work at play. I have to return to the painting in this case, certainly for the occasional outdoor scenes. An impressionist like Renoir comes to mind, though more in sensibility than actual technique. On the other hand, I couldn’t shake Vermeer when watching some of the interior scenes, even if the location and time period are off (this is early 19th century). Almost solely composed of static shots (again heightening the feeling of watching tableaux vivants), the cinematography at once evokes the social context of each scene, as well as being an expression of the underlying emotions which the characters can’t show themselves because they are being restricted by the social mores of the circles they move in.
The film features quite a number of songs, and the lyrics all tie into the theme of life and death and choice here. In this regard especially the final song is eerie, given the identity of the performer (I don’t want to give too much away, although those intimate with the ultimate fate of von Kleist would probably not be spoiled). This seems to become a theme at this year’s festival, directors granting songs in their films enough breathing space, and nowhere is it more appropriate than here.
Hausner has crafted a film that demands rewatching (and your reviewer will certainly be doing that) to grasp the finer nuances of the dialogue, because it feels like there is much more to dig up. A beautiful film to watch, with intelligent content to mull over, and a director who is in perfect control of her work with an astonishing precision, Amour Fou is pretty much perfect, at least on first viewing. Whether that holds up remains to be seen, but for now Hausner has set the bar really high for herself for whatever comes next. The film is probably not something that is in line with a lot of people’s taste, but if you like rigid formalism with a good dash of understated humor and some truly amazing cinematography, you are in for a major treat.