The mysteries of love rarely get more enigmatic than in Amour Fou, the fascinatingly freeze-dried dark comedy from Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner. A reimagining of the events that led to the suicide pact between 19th century German poet Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel, the movie probably won’t please history buffs. (The filmmaker takes some liberties with the actual events.) But as an immersive portrait of repression, depression and the stifling air of privilege, it’s a stubbornly beautiful curio.
Amour Fou takes place in the months leading up to Heinrich’s death, as the ineffectual poet (Christian Friedel) spends time in Berlin asking potential paramours an odd question: “Would you like to die with me?” Unspeakably unhappy and seeing little point in going on—despite gaining recognition for his novel The Marquise of O—Heinrich is ready to end it all, but he yearns to kill himself beside a woman who loves him, as if to prove that amour is stronger than death. Not surprisingly, Heinrich’s proposal elicits no takers.
But then he meets Henriette (Birte Schnöink), a society wife who’s been married for 12 years to Friedrich Louis Vogel (Stephan Grossmann), with whom she’s had a daughter. Impressed with Heinrich’s novel, she’s somewhat drawn to the man, but when he suggests a suicide pact, she’s not interested—until she learns that she has a fatal illness and not much longer to live.
Hausner’s last film, 2009’s gloriously opaque Lourdes, concerned a young woman with little religious faith suffering from multiple sclerosis who travels to the titular Catholic pilgrimage site, inexplicably getting cured in the process. If that movie, with its poker-faced tone, was a wry examination of faith, Amour Fou is similarly dubious yet enraptured by the notion of soul mates. As portrayed by Friedel and Schnöink, Heinrich and Henriette aren’t ever really romantically linked—it’s more that they share a certain sensibility that separates them from those in their orbit.
But Amour Fou isn’t an unrequited-love tale like The Age of Innocence or one of the Merchant-Ivory productions. Shot by Hausner’s longtime cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, the film is a collection of flat, static compositions with no soundtrack. (The camera almost never moves, and the only music we here comes from a piano Henriette owns.) Consequently, Amour Fou’s scenes play out like a series of paintings, the intentionally stiff performances complementing the lack of energy in the framing.
It’s a risky gambit, Hausner calling attention to the era’s claustrophobic, rigid social status, but for the most part it works, creating a hypnotic, unexpectedly amusing commentary. But as a result, one never warms up to Heinrich and Henriette—which is fine considering that they never warm up to one another. They’re not lovebirds as much as they’re two miserable peas in a pod.
Friedel, whom American audiences might recognize from his role as a schoolteacher in The White Ribbon, flaunts Heinrich’s pouty, pathetic despair. Twisting our perception of the typical sad-sad sensitive artiste, Heinrich doesn’t do much to win our sympathy, moping in the corner of the screen as he limply pursues Henriette. But what’s intriguing is that we don’t end up hating him: In the world of Amour Fou, he’s actually the proactive one, surrounded by the rich and comfortable who seem content frittering away the rest of their cushy lives. There’s a perceptible inhumanity in Amour Fou’s upper-class interactions—Hausner wants this milieu to feel like a waxworks—so it’s easy to see why a genuinely morose (albeit in a self-indulgent way) figure like Heinrich could fall through the cracks.
As for Schnöink, Amour Fou represents one of her first big-screen roles, and the actress projects a mournful, faraway look hinting at all the opportunities she’s lost conforming to a society where she’s merely a wife and mother. But Hausner isn’t content to let Henriette be a traditionally woe-is-me romantic damsel. The filmmaker shows how she, too, seems almost lobotomized by her era. The character’s gradually growing interest in Heinrich’s offer, perversely, is for the exact opposite reason that he wants the suicide pact: He envisions his death as a way to live forever, while she simply wishes to die. Sardonically, Amour Fou illustrates a romantic truism: No couple sees eye-to-eye on everything.
Because the movie places its characters under glass, practically encased in amber, one stares at Amour Fou from a remove. Hausner’s strategy has echoes in world cinema: everything from Jeanne Dielman’s forbidding monotony to the deadpan humor of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. Amour Fou splits the difference, leaving the viewer caught between snorting at Heinrich and Henriette’s slow-motion ennui and wanting to scream at their stifling environment. That tonal discomfort is where Hausner wants us to sit as we watch with curiosity, wondering exactly how these two people will dispatch themselves. But despite Amour Fou’s tightly constructed reserve, Hausner has one other trick up her sleeve, and she holds it until the end: As unknowable as these characters are, you may be surprised how much you miss them.
Director: Jessica Hausner
Writer: Jessica Hausner
Starring: Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel, Stephan Grossmann, Sandra Hüller
Release Date: March 18, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.