“He has a rather melancholic disposition,” says one woman about the young 19th-century poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) in the opening minutes of Amour Fou. It’s an observation that can only be described as a gross understatement when considering the poet’s deteriorating mental state, as Kleist is morbidly obsessed with taking his own life. In modern parlance, he is clinically depressed, but as doctors tended to call it in Germany in 1811, he suffered from “ailments of a spiritual nature.” Such is the dry humor, paired with rigorous formality, that shapes the tone of Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner’s latest film—a robust, stylish, and acerbically comic take on Heinrich von Kleist’s final days with his lover Henriette Vogel.
The revisionist historical film begins with Heinrich’s search for a romantic partner, one with whom he can commit suicide, not live. His cousin, Marie (Sandra Huller) is fond of Heinrich, but finds the request outrageous. The poet’s affections for Marie never subside, but he resigns himself to seeking a new partner in death, whom he eventually finds in the already-wed Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoink). Married into the upper echelons of German aristocracy, Henriette spends her bleak days practicing music with her daughter and anticipating the return to home of her husband, who is far more occupied with tax regulations and vicious elitism than his family.
Heinrich and Henriette’s paths converge among the haughty entourage of German high society members whose casual disregard for the working class is cartoonishly outdated and expertly incorporated into Hausner’s rigid aesthetic. This amusingly evil group occupies pink castles and sports grandiose hairdos that wouldn’t be entirely incongruous if they showed up in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Hausner’s humor is deadpan and vitriolic, vacillating between serious ruminations on depression and farcical casualness about the banality of the world.
When Heinrich proposes a mutual suicide pact calmly, as if asking her on a first date, Henriette initially rejects. Yet, when it transpires that she suffers from a terminal disease, she relents. Whether her illness is a physical condition or a reflection of her longing for liberation from her gloomy life is left to the audience to analyze. Her proclamation of approval doesn’t quite satisfy her lover, however. Heinrich only wants her to kill herself to prove her love for him, not to unshackle herself from her miserable life of domesticity. Thus the perpetually pitiable Heinrich generates little sympathy for his self-absorbed behavior, which is exaggerated to to the point of parody.
Hausner’s meticulously constructed static frames convey the joylessness of life for Henriette and Heinrich’s loneliness. The stillness of the compositions possess an overbearing quality, as though the walls close in on the audience with suffocating weight. Although Hausner’s poker-faced sense of humor—and Friedel’s masterful execution of it—provides relief for the audience, no such delight is afforded to Henriette. Her existence is reduced to perpetual ennui and subservience within a male-dominated world. Amour Fou’s haunting finale emphasizes this inescapable cycle of hopelessness, in a scene that, like much of the film, is as sharply funny as it is provocative. This is a difficult balance to maintain, and one that even if achieved successfully might still bewilder audiences. In Hausner’s deft hands, the comedy makes the existential exercise even more challenging, forcing the audience to ponder awkward truths beneath the chilly humor.