Toward the end of Amour Fou, Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner (Lourdes) imagines the final meeting between Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel)—the gifted but tormented Prussian writer who achieved lasting literary fame only after committing suicide in 1811, at age 34—and his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), whom he'd asked on several occasions to join him in death. Marie is clearly fond of her cousin, even enamored with his genius, but she's unwilling to take his death wish seriously. Speaking in a warm, matronly tone, she says, "I agree that life is meaningless and that people are cruel, but do you need to let it bother you so much?" This line, like so many others in the film, registers as darkly comic: these socialites are so well behaved that not even an invitation to suicide ruffles their feathers.
One needn't be familiar with Kleist or early 19th-century Europe to appreciate the humor in Amour Fou, which is ultimately about the conflict between social order and individual will. Yet Hausner provides enough historical context to illuminate the society and individuals in question. Set during the last few years of Kleist's life, the film centers on his strange relationship with Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink), an aristocratic woman who agreed to die alongside him. Most conversations that aren't about him or her concern the Prussian government's decision to adopt a general tax, which will mark the first time in the nation's history that all men are equal under the law. The characters tend to be critical of this change, not least Henriette. "I am my husband's property and would never demand freedom," she says early in the film, and her comment plays out in the subsequent depictions of her suffocating routines at home and in society. Only when Henriette is diagnosed with terminal cancer does she start to question whether a life without freedom is worth living.
Hausner's style underscores just how confined women were in predemocratic Europe. In nearly every shot she arranges people and objects in a geometric pattern; the camera seldom leaves a fixed position, and the characters seem stilted in their speech and behavior (in a recent Film Comment interview Hausner said she told her actors to move as if they were pieces in a chess game). Only a handful of scenes take place outdoors, and in many of the underdressed interiors, intricately patterned wallpaper covers every inch of wall space, a visual analogue for the characters' highly ordered lives. Sometimes Amour Fou seems to be taking place in the human zoo where Keir Dullea winds up at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey; this isn't Western civilization as we know it but some alien, overly regimented facsimile.
The passionate feelings that Kleist and other German Romantics wrote about would seem to have no place in Hausner's vision of the early 19th century. Indeed this is one of the movie's best running jokes. Amour Fou opens with Henriette describing the plot of Kleist's novella The Marquise of O for her disinterested husband (a functionary in the state finance department), who's quick to interject that the transformative love experienced by Kleist's heroine "rarely happens" in real life. In the next scene the couple attend a drawing room party where a singer performs a typical Romantic ballad about a beautiful shepherdess, concluding with the line "Let me die for her!" Hausner cuts from the singer to the small, static audience, who display no visible emotional response. For the Prussian upper class, feelings of rapture and longing are just the literary equivalent of all that fancy wallpaper.
Given this cultural climate, it comes as no surprise when, later in the story, the eccentric, impassioned Kleist announces that he can't find a theater to produce his most recent play (The Prince of Homburg, later considered a masterpiece of German Romanticism) and that without a patron he lives in near poverty. Today Kleist would probably be diagnosed as depressive; he was plagued by feelings of worthlessness and despair, and he spent much of his time alone, often fantasizing about suicide. Yet Hausner reminds us that, no matter how miserable Kleist may have felt, he never regarded himself as a piece of property—his feelings of worthlessness weren't enforced by law, as they were for most of his female contemporaries.
With its narrative split between Kleist and Henriette, Amour Fou can be read as a feminist critique of German Romanticism and all it stood for. As a society wife, Henriette has no access to the feelings of selfhood and transcendence that were central to this artistic movement, and her experience, which Hausner suggests was typical of upper-class women, throws Kleist's torment into sharp relief. In another of the movie's better jokes, the doctor who diagnoses Henriette with uterine cancer tells her to avoid physical activity and get plenty of bed rest, a regimen that requires virtually no change in her daily routine. This irony isn't lost on Henriette, who realizes that her current life is no different than a drawn-out death and decides to join Kleist, a family friend, in his quest to commit suicide.
As depicted by Hausner, Kleist doesn't share in Henriette's proto-feminist awakening; in fact he almost rejects her when she explains why she wants to die. Kleist wants her to die with him out of admiration for his ideals, not because she has cancer. ("I suffer not from death but from life," he tells her pedantically.) Kleist might reject the emotionlessness of Prussian high society, but he's still influenced by its mania for order—his double suicide must proceed exactly to his specifications or not at all. The final third of Amour Fou mines Kleist's perfectionism for laugh-out-loud black humor, as fate intervenes again and again to keep him from dying. In one sequence Kleist and Henriette travel to a country inn, where they plan to spend the night before killing themselves the following morning. After they settle in and get a drink at the lounge, Kleist is recognized by a colleague, who insinuates that the writer is having a sexual affair. Kleist is so offended by the suggestion (he wants his relationship with Henriette to be immortalized as a chaste one) that he postpones the suicide for another day.
Hausner presents this great writer as a sympathetic nut, not an egomaniacal chauvinist. His pain seems genuine, and he's clearly been thwarted in his creative endeavors. Yet his talent doesn't really factor into Hausner's portrait; apart from that early discussion of The Marquise of O, his writing barely enters into the conversation. Amour Fou defines Kleist by his personal pain (as he often did himself) and uses his suffering to illuminate that of the women around him. After so many scenes of Henriette losing herself in meaningless housework—and so many images of people behaving like chess pieces rather than people—you might wonder why Kleist had so much trouble finding a Prussian woman who wanted life to be over. v