Overview: Poet Heinrich von Kleist tries to convince a married woman to make a suicide pact with him in nineteenth century Prussia. Arrow Films; 2014; 96 Minutes.
Double suicide pact: Amour Fou (“Wild Love”) began life as a script about a love induced suicide. Locked in a draw for five years because it ‘was in some way not close enough to life and was too constructed’, it resurfaced when Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner (Lourdes) stumbled on the real life story of poet Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel. The film’s fictional roots are not disguised and those expecting a biopic of von Kleist will be left disappointed. Instead the result is a ‘free adaptation’ that takes liberties with the facts, treats its characters as impressions of historical figures rather than unflinching replicas, and focusses not on Heinrich (Christian Friedel), but the object of his attention, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink). Interestingly, Henriette is not Heinrich’s first choice of suicide partner, something that gives his wish a bizarre yet fascinating inconsistency and narcissism. Hausner’s film is skewed to reveal the absurdity in Heinrich’s conviction that the loneliness of life can be escaped through companionship in death. That Hausner (whose filmography majors on female portraits) spends little time probing the minutiae of his dis-satisfaction with life and ill-conceived ideas about love is a significant blemish.
Romanticism or depression?: Instead it’s from Henriette’s perspective that mental suffering and inner struggles are most acutely scrutinised. Bodily symptoms of a mystery illness are as confusing to her physicians as those affecting her mind. Hausner is vague: could this melancholy reflect Henriette’s Romantic leanings or is she depressed? Regardless of the interpretation, in the context of early medicine and the study of “nervous disorders.” Hausner pierces common misunderstandings that continue to linger. ‘It’s upsetting to have an illness no-one knows or understands,’ says Henriette before Hausner subjects her to ‘magnetic sleep’ and confused physical diagnoses. The film’s levity comes from Henriette’s mother, a resolute cynic whose brief acerbic comments cut through the medical and philosophical “nonsense.” Henriette’s mental torture appears in marked contrast to Heinrich’s Romantic, idealised misery. The loneliness he experiences could be solved by a little “effort” argues his cousin. But perhaps we misunderstand him. And perhaps this is Hausner’s cryptic point.
Control, revolution and democracy: That Heinrich desires Henriette to take her own life purely out of devotion to him (and not for any reasons of her own) is enough to erode our sympathy. Yet, Henriette is also drawn to the idea of suicide as a means of controlling her own life. It’s an idea magnified by Hausner’s attention to historical context. While huge losses during the Napoleonic Wars underline the futility of life, it’s the politics of revolutionary France that imbues Hausner’s film with its pensive tone. Prussian serfs are on the verge of freedom and Hausner depicts the aristocracy’s resulting philosophical debates with subtle irony. “If only we were spared the democracy where educated people are outvoted by the mob,” says one self-interested party. Another aristocrat speculates that, if everyone is constrained by fate, then why not let that fate be decided by the knowledgable. The conviction with which these ideas are spoken enhances their absurdity, but Amour Fou can be reduced almost entirely to this desire for control and empowerment, both personal and political. Even Henriette’s husband who expresses a more liberal political view, does so merely in the interest of economics.
Enlightenment and feminism: In spite of an aristocracy clinging to archaic structures, Hausner uses the same era of Romanticism and Enlightenment (at this time the effects of the writings of Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot were still being felt across the French border) to highlight our own fallibility. Amour Fou is filled with “mistakes” made by those supposedly at the forefront of thinking. Most crucial is Hausner’s subtext revealing unobserved female oppression. Her film opens on Heinrich’s tale of a woman who falls in love with her rapist. It’s a murky interpretation of consent that permeates the entire film. As a woman, Henriette is passive, apparently content to exist as her husband’s “property” and it seems her daughter is fated to tread the same path. It’s possible to read Henriette’s open rejection of a gifted singing career as protesting too much, but her supposition that such fame can only lead to hatred says much about the options open to women. The intentional contrast between the film’s present and ours, replete with contradictions and similarities, is its main attraction, underlined by vivid cinematography and production design that removes us from the comfort-zone of period drama.
Overall: The difficulty with Hausner’s Amour Fou is that its ambitious strands never fully coalesce. Instead, the gulf between aristocratic philosophising, Romantic poetry, internal struggles and a desire for control is left for audiences to bridge. There’s plenty of space in which to do this could be accomplished, as Amour Fou is a slow affair. But with such a perplexing, out-of-reach male lead the desire to do so may be wanting.