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Archive for July 2016

amour fou

No. 14 –Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner, 2014)

For all the vitriol thrown at the monolith of Europe lately, I thought it was worth considering a more positive tradition, of European cinema. The concept doesn’t really exist, when you consider the diversity between auteurs like Spain’s Almodovar, Sweden’s Bergman, and France’s Godard, and yet we all have a clear idea of what European cinema is – character driven, inherently political, often dense and incoherent to the casual viewer, plus subtitles and tits. After a while, you can draw each country’s cinema in broad strokes – Britain’s kitchen sink dramas, France’s nouveau vague, Scandinavian psycho-dramas – though this is reductive once you look in detail (Ken Russell, Jean Cocteau, Roy Andersson). But I don’t have a stereotypical notion of Austrian cinema.

In some ways, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is typical of European cinema, sort of. The story is ambiguous, the tone challenging and ever-changing, and it does not make things simple for its audience. Long stretches go by where characters talk about contemporary political details, which may not have even been significant at the time, let alone hold any relevance now. The film even looks like a stage play, the camera still and rarely moving, many shots recalling a Vermeer painting. It’s perhaps most surprising that it’s a historical picture, and based on a true story, albeit one not well known outside of German literature. Though we anglocentric viewers think BBC Sunday nights have a monopoly on historical stories, there is a significant legacy of European cinema looking to the past for its biggest box office success – post-war Germany understandably didn’t want to spend much time watching contemporary films. One of the most successful European films is another Austrian history tale, 1955’s Sissi, starring Romy Schneider. But Amour Fou is stranger, dryer, and holds its subjects in lower esteem. At times, the film almost seems to be a parody of its strange tale.

Henriette is a dull woman, who leads a bland life as a wife and mother in early 1800s Berlin, happy to consider herself her “husband’s property” in the age of politeness. Most people find her silly and uninteresting – her attempts to engage with political discourse at dinner parties are met with a dismissive silence, and her husband and mother dismiss the stories she excitedly recounts. At one party, she meets the author of one of these stories, a gloomy young poet called Heinrich von Kliest, who find her to be a kindred spirit, or at least a malleable one. He is particularly depressed of late because his cousin Marie refuses to commit suicide with him. After a few encounters, Heinrich asks Henriette if she will kill herself with him instead, reasoning that her life is loveless and mediocre, which she denies. Henriette then finds herself similarly infected with melancholy and as her condition fails to improve, her doctor diagnoses her with a terminal illness.

Heinrich’s entire identity is built around his melancholic nature, even rejecting Marie’s offer of a doctor because he boasts his sadness is too great for anyone to help. In contrast, Henriette takes on the identity of other people. Early in the film, she watches a performance by a famous singer, and tells her husband that she pities her for her fame, but later gives an awkward recitation of the same song to the polite bemusement of her audience. She is almost giddy when she first falls ill, finally having the concern of her mother and husband. Henriette’s attempts to assert an identity, even if it is an impersonation of someone else, are constantly stifled either by the men around her – her “decision” to kill herself alongside Heinrich is rejected because it is to avoid a slow death, rather than an overwhelming love for him– or by the bourgeois society she is trapped in, which Heinrich rails against. Their first attempt at their death pact is derailed when, after travelling to a secluded hotel together where he will first shoot her then himself, they encounter an acquaintance who implies that they are having an affair. The suggestion outrages Heinrich, but if they were about to die anyway, why should they care what people would think? But Heinrich is as culpable as the social norms he fights against – the appeal is that he would have such control over a person that he could talk them into death, and furthermore, he is to be the one to pull the trigger.

Usually, this historical romance has been told as a tale of great passion, from the point of view of the famous von Kliest, and this is often reflected in the reviews and synopses of Amour Fou. But Hausner flips the story on its head, portraying the events from Henriette’s perspective, depicting Heinrich as an awkward boob, and suggesting Henriette’s illness, usually accepted as legitimate in the historical records, as psychosomatic. Hausner fights to give Henriette’s story the attention that von Kliest always enjoyed – why should she be an afterthought in her own death? The director massages the details somewhat (though 200 years later, who knows what the details were?), and it plays at times like a cringe comedy, with Heinrich finally accepting Henriette’s offer to kill herself, deciding that her reasons for dying are acceptable because she is still choosing to die with him than live with her husband. Even their love is weirdly asexual – they don’t so much as kiss throughout the film, and Heinrich is mortified to have walked in on Henriette as she changes clothes.

In the background of all this, society argues about the new tax laws, thinking they give the poor and uneducated responsibility that they can not cope with. Similarly, a woman like Henriette is not expected to enjoy great passions. It is Heinrich’s story of a woman being raped and impregnated by a man in disguise who is revealed to be her lover that first transfixes Henriette, the story that her mother and husband mock and dismiss for its excessive emotions. She is clearly striving for something more than her current existence offers her, and it is Heinrich’s cack-handed proposal on the grounds that her life is meaningless that shocks her into melancholy. Believing her to be dying, her husband offers to step back and let her enjoy her “affair”, rather than making any attempt to connect with her. When news of their death breaks, her husband gets word that there was no tumour after all, and Henriette did not kill herself as a result of her sickness. “It was out of love after all,” he concedes. The audience can not be so sure.