Amour Fou wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter, its opening salvo a cheerful ditty about a metaphorical violet being trampled underfoot, before one of the guests at a small domestic recital declares the performance so beautiful that you could shoot yourself. It’s the height of the Romantic era in Berlin, and the happily married Henriette (Birte Schnöink) and Friedrich Louis Vogel (Stephan Grossmann) are receiving company, among them famous writer Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel). Kleist’s writings have already piqued the interest of the previously carefree Henriette, whose subsequent association with the fatalistic poet won’t end happily, as history also tells us. Yet unlike, say, Dominik Graf, Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner is less interested in historical revisionism than mining this real-life tragedy for its existential thrust, even as her off-kilter compositions remold the costume drama into a geometry of suppressed feeling.
As he has no problem proclaiming publicly, Kleist is tired of this world and yearns to leave it, ideally in the company of a woman so madly in love with him, she’s willing to follow him into death. Having already tried and failed to groom his cousin, Marie (a wonderfully caustic Sandra Hüller), to this end, there’s something irresistibly pragmatic about Kleist’s attempts to woo Henriette, whose initial, incredulous rebuff carries nervousness and doubt in its wake nonetheless. But the root cause of Henriette’s ensuing agitation remains as intangible for her and her family as it is for the viewer. Is this a bodily complaint, a mental condition, a rocky road to enlightenment, or—whisper it now—love? Once the medical profession decides her affliction is physical, one thing is at least certain: Swift to reconsider Kleist’s offer in the aftermath of her terminal diagnosis, Henriette is bound to her suitor in pragmatism, if nothing else.
But a closer look at the world this doomed duo inhabits suggests pragmatism may be the only sensible strategy. Hausner’s implacable gaze turns 19th-century life into an endless, airless procession of stiff social engagements, prim performances, and indignant discussions on universal taxation, all framed with a systematic austerity that chimes perfectly with the all-pervading sense of ossification. Each painterly, meticulously arranged shot relies on the same key elements: big blocks of pastels whose shades reappear in the high-collared costumes; carefully placed sections of patterning on floors, wallpapers, or fabrics; a solitary photo, painting, or mirror on a wall; door frames and windows for further delineation as necessary. Every composition functions like a new, equally stifling iteration of the previous one, interiors and exteriors alike a matrix of tidily interlocking shapes, all united by the great swathes of unoccupied space they contain.
Yet decorum and convention ensure that no one would dream of moving into these tantalizingly empty spaces, as the geometric rigor of the frame serves to root everyone to the spot like butterflies under glass. And on the few occasions that the characters are permitted to move, they do so “like puppets, moving to a fixed choreography,” as Kleist himself remarks, a sublimely jerky waltz scene being the most pointed example here. Hausner also makes shrewd use of color to highlight the relationships within these static tableaus, clothing the Vogels’ maid in bright fuchsia to prevent her from blending in with the bourgeois background or making sure that Henriette and Kleist’s clothing harmonizes, while Vogel’s clearly does not.
In lesser hands, all this existential soul-searching and compositional rigor might end up feeling drily academic or just plain depressing. But even if Hausner’s sense of precision is already hugely impressive, perhaps her greatest achievement is how she manages to lace this cerebral material with bone-dry wit. Aside from the perfectly pitched dialogue, whose passive constructions and abstract nouns are drolly inadequate for exploring feelings, the deliberate shifts in register between different characters provide a constant source of amusement. After the doctor reads out an absurdly detailed report on the mental and physical intricacies of Henriette’s condition, her mother’s deadpan response is: “So it is something serious after all.” And when Kleist makes one gushing final plea for Marie to join him in death, her stinging riposte is: “I’ve always enjoyed philosophizing with you, but now you’re ruining my good mood.”
As these star-crossed non-lovers’ pact moves into its final stages, other relationships become perversely reaffirmed and new doubts rear their head. If there’s a thesis here, it’s that love, or what’s termed as such, is to be found at that elusive sweet spot between pragmatism and projection. Even if this realization arrives too late to save Henriette, it does at least liberate Hausner’s film from cynicism. Perhaps the true lesson is what Marie delivers as one final punchline: “I agree that life is meaningless and people are cruel, but there’s no need to let that get you down.”