It is a very interesting evolutionary path, that of director Jessica Hausner, one of the most popular Austrian film directors today. After a career beginning in which the world of adolescence and self-discovery was the focus of her interest, following a brief incursion into horror cinema, her discourse gradually shifted to social issues and to all the”weirdness” that characterises the society in which we live. This is the case with Lourdes, as well as Amour Fou, the first costume drama by the Viennese director.
Cannes Film Festival 2014. Within the Un Certain Regard section, the feature film Amour Fou aroused particular attention, kicking off a series of observations on one of the main protagonists of contemporary Austrian filmography due to her particular directorial approach. It is a very interesting evolutionary path, then, that of the director Jessica Hausner, nowadays among the most popular Austrian film directors abroad. After a career beginning in which the world of adolescence and self-discovery was the focus of her attention (first with the short film Flora, in 1995, and then with the feature film Lovely Rita, made in 2001), after a brief incursion into horror cinema with Hotel (2004), her discourse gradually shifted to social issues and all the “weirdness” that characterises the society in which we live. Particularly focused on this theme, for example, is Lourdes, presented in competition at the Venice Film Festival 2009, in which the director took aim at religious fanaticism, as is also Amour Fou, the first costume drama by the Viennese director.
Inspired by the tragic life of writer Heinrich von Kleist – who, in 1811, shot himself and his friend Henriette Vogel to death – Amour Fou makes a reinterpretation of the story without excessively fictionalising it, providing a glimpse into the nobility of the early 19th century, a (not too) veiled criticism of today’s upper middle class and – not least – a kind of (benevolent?) mockery of artists themselves and their extreme way of experiencing feelings.
The Henriette Vogel staged here (played by Birte Schnöink) is, in every way, what one might call “a woman from another time”: faithful to her husband out of duty rather than choice, the loving mother of young Pauline, with no apparent aspiration other than to devote herself entirely to her family, between embroidery, a walk in the country and a cocktail party with the aristocracy of the time. Things will change, however, when she first meets a well-known opera singer, who used to perform at the most important aristocratic salons, and finally Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) himself. Thus begins a series of inexplicable ills. What if her illnesses, instead of incurable diseases, were only due to nerves?
As the director admitted, the choice to tell the story of the upper middle class by setting the film in another era helps to give the right detachment from the events, similarly to what Stanley Kubrick did with the successful voice over in his Barry Lyndon (1975). Yet, in this case, the choice of a costume drama is not enough to best express this detachment. Jessica Hausner’s own directorial approach, here more extreme than ever, did the rest.
Thus, a series of shots – all with a fixed camera – with a frame structure studied down to the smallest detail, decidedly saturated colours and, last but not least, a total absence of music, with only the sporadic “intrusion” of rigorously diegetic music in the scenes set during the parties. This directorial approach, rather than differing from the rest of Hausner’s films, actually shows a progressive path towards a style with an increasingly marked and totally personal aesthetic, which, in some ways, is reminiscent of the works of fellow countryman Ulrich Seidl. If, in fact, already in Lourdes, the camera’s approach, with an almost documentary-like manner, seemed very “severe” and rigorous, in Amour Fou everything is taken to the extreme, with so many intentionally static characters, according to the full canons of Brechtian distanciation.
This detachment adopted by the director, however, reveals, first and foremost, one of her main intentions: a very ironic look at high society and the world of artists. The same ironic approach observed in Lourdes, because of which, however, despite the successful attempt to “lighten up” what is staged, Jessica Hausner can seem, at times, excessively judgmental. The characters themselves, for instance, seem to us almost emotionless, cold, detached, even though Amour Fou stages, above all, a great, great pain of living. And even the fixed-camera shots never provide us with details or close-ups of faces, almost as if the protagonists’ emotions were, in fact, far away from who staged their events. Is there, then, any possibility of salvation? Maybe. But let us be clear: the image of Henriette’s daughter, who, at the end of the film, after playing a piece on the piano, bows down in front of the camera, almost as if to say goodbye to the audience, while somehow giving hope for a better future, leaves the audience with justifiable doubts.
In a few words, what a feature film like Amour Fou shows is the intention to start a discourse on humanity that can hardly be closed, which, due to the care with which everything has been realised, makes one wonder what other directions Jessica Hausner’s filmography will take in the future and which, looking around within contemporary Austrian films, cannot help but make one think of another important costume drama of recent years: Mademoiselle Paradis (2017), directed by Barbara Albert. The approach adopted by the director here is totally different and far more emotional than that of Hausner. But that, of course, is another story.
Original title: Amour Fou
Directed by: Jessica Hausner
Country/year: Austria, Luxembourg, Germany / 2014
Running time: 92’
Genre: historical, biographical, romance
Cast: Christian Friedel, Birte Schnöink, Stephan Grossmann, Sandra Hüller, Holger Handtke, Barbara Schnitzler, Alissa Wilms, Paraschiva Dragus
Screenplay: Jessica Hausner
Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht
Produced by: Coop99 Filmproduktion, Amour Fou Luxembourg, Essential Filmproduktion GmbH