When Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner began working on the script that would eventually become her new film, Amour Fou, she only knew that she wanted to make a movie about double suicide and base it on a true story. After considering several actual incidents, Hausner stumbled on the legendary joint suicide pact of acclaimed German author/poet Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel. At first glance, this might sound like the formula for a work of insufferably gloomy romanticism, but that assumption would be gravely erroneous. In Hausner’s skilled hands, Amour Fou is a dryly funny portrait of obsession that also manages to explore the early flickerings of feminism, the often-disastrous theories of 19th century medicine and Germany’s tumultuous relationship with democracy.
The year is 1811, and controversial author von Kleist (Christian Friedel) has scandalized polite society with his novella, The Marquise of O, about a noble woman who finds herself “unaccountably pregnant.” However, Kleist is focused on a more personal project. Finding life unbearable due to what he sees as his own exquisite sensitivity, he wants to die. However, he doesn’t want to shuffle off his mortal coil alone. He is determined to find a woman who will love him enough to accompany him into death.
After being rejected by at least one woman, Kleist turns his attention to Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink), a well-to-do wife and mother whose husband is a tax collector for the Prussian government. At first, Henriette is as dismissive as Kleist’s previous targets. She claims to be happy with her life, loves her daughter and is pleased to be “her husband’s property.” Why would she want to die?
Everything changes when Henriette comes down with a mysterious malady that may be fatal. Her illness changes her perspective and propels her into Kleist’s vision for their future. The film’s title comes from the classic French term for “mad love,” but here the focus is more on the “mad” side of the equation. Although the facts are still subject to debate, Hausner views Kleist’s romanticism with a coolly analytical eye. There is no questioning his eccentrically German style of passion or his sincerity, but there is also little doubt that he is kind of a monster: obsessive and almost unimaginably selfish.
While nothing even remotely fantastical happens, the contrast between Hausner’s crisply realistic cinematic style and the absurdist elements of the story give Amour Fou a deliciously surreal quality reminiscent of the work of Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Conversely, Hausner also carefully grounds her wild tale in a specific moment in German history as the government prepares to introduce a universal tax to be paid by all residents—a crucial step in the evolution of people from subjects to citizens. Of course, the aristocracy’s horror at the concept that they will be expected to pay taxes also makes the film feel timeless. Hausner’s wonderfully witty film is one of the year’s best and marks her as a talent to watch out for in the future.