Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is a strange tragicomic chamber piece based on the life of the 19th-century author Heinrich von Kleist. The film is as carefully composed and disquieting as earlier Hausner films such as Lourdes (2009) and Hotel (2004) but more inert, more deathly: an effect entirely deliberate.
It is set in the Berlin of the Romantic era, where von Kleist has had a sensational success with his 1808 novel The Marquise of O. Christian Friedel – who played the kindly schoolteacher in Haneke’s The White Ribbon – is Heinrich himself, overwhelmed at despair at the human condition and longing for death. Conceiving a doomed passion for a young married woman Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink), he tries to persuade her to join him in a suicide pact, having failed to involve his more robustly commonsensical cousin in a similar plan.
The characters here interact in an almost trance-like choreography, like dancers in a minuet or figures on a music box. The camera is largely immobile, recording scenes like tableaux. Henriette herself is ill: whether her condition is physical or psychosomatic is unclear, and she undergoes a “magnetic sleep” process of hypnosis, which like modern psycho-analysis could take years to complete, and as she wavers about the cause of her sickness, there is a macabre, deadpan humour in the way she vacillates about whether to take part in Heinrich’s grand gesture. It is a strange, clenched movie: weirdly compelling, with an undertone of absurdity worthy of Woody Allen’s Love and Death.