Monday, March 16, 2015

Amour Fou: the Poet Said Suicide is Painless

Could anyone be less lovable than a Romantic era poet? Heinrich von Kleist is a perfect case in point. Perennially disappointed in the world, he makes everything about him. Not surprisingly, he has trouble finding a partner for a proposed suicide pact, but an untimely (and perhaps inaccurate) medical diagnosis will convince the upstanding Henriette Vogel to unexpectedly accept his invitation. They take a long and awkward final exit from life in Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou (trailer here) which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

As a married woman of considerable social standing, Frau Vogel completely accepts the gender hierarchies of early Nineteenth Century Berlin, declaring herself contentedly subservient to her husband Friedrich Louis. Her only hint of subversion is her fascination with von Kleist’s novella The Marquise of O. Meeting von Kleist in person is a bit disappointing at first, but a platonic friendship slowly develop between them.

Kleist’s first choice for a dying companion is his cousin Marie, for whom he has carried an ambiguously romantic torch, but she is too sensible for his foolishness. He then propositions Vogel, assuming her life as a wife and mother must necessarily be one of quiet desperation, but again he receives a polite demurral. Tragically, when a series a fainting spells leads to a long distance diagnosis of a malignant tumor, Vogel’s perspective changes drastically. However, von Kleist is less enthusiastic about the pact knowing she has her own reasons for accepting rather than the great honor of meeting her end at his side.

Hausner’s screenplay will convince audiences von Kleist was the most miserable and narcissistic amongst the self-absorbed lot that were the Romantics. In many respects, it savagely satirizes his self-indulgence angsts and melancholia. Unfortunately, we still have to spend an awful lot of screen time with him.

Yet, the potential for subversive comedy is mostly undone by the severity of the atmosphere and the bloodlessness of the performances. Only Birte Schnöink’s Vogel and—ironically—Stephen Grossmann as her husband occasionally show any hint of real emotions. In contrast, as von Kleist, Christian Friedel drifts through the film like a petulant vampire. Of course, that all seems to be part of Hausner’s plan. She tightly controls the film with her coldly rigid sense of composition. Granted, at times her visuals are striking, bit they are also distancing. At times, Amour Fou hardly seems like a motion picture at all, but series of frozen tableaux.

Amour Fou is a handsomely crafted period production, but it fatally labors under its excessively Teutonic discipline. It might sound like a natural companion film to Beloved Sisters, but it lacks the passion and sweep of Dominik Graf’s historical romance (featuring Friedrich Schiller). Hausner shows flashes of mordant wit that help considerably, but she never overcomes the anti-climactic nature of a film that inexorably builds to suicide. Unsatisfyingly reserved, Amour Fou is only for those who prefer their films cerebral and German. It opens this Wednesday (3/18) in New York, at Film Forum.