*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
“He has a rather melancholic disposition,” says one woman about the young 19th-century poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) in the opening minutes of Amour Fou. It’s an observation that can only be described as a gross understatement when considering the poet’s deteriorating mental state, as Kleist is morbidly obsessed with taking his own life. In modern parlance, he is clinically depressed, but as doctors tended to call it in Germany in 1811, he suffered from “ailments of a spiritual nature.” Such is the dry humor, paired with rigorous formality, that shapes the tone of Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner’s latest film—a robust, stylish, and acerbically comic take on Heinrich von Kleist’s final days with his lover Henriette Vogel.
The revisionist historical film begins with Heinrich’s search for a romantic partner, one with whom he can commit suicide, not live. His cousin, Marie (Sandra Huller) is fond of Heinrich, but finds the request outrageous. The poet’s affections for Marie never subside, but he resigns himself to seeking a new partner in death, whom he eventually finds in the already-wed Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoink). Married into the upper echelons of German aristocracy, Henriette spends her bleak days practicing music with her daughter and anticipating the return to home of her husband, who is far more occupied with tax regulations and vicious elitism than his family.
When Heinrich proposes a mutual suicide pact calmly, as if asking her on a first date, Henriette initially rejects. Yet, when it transpires that she suffers from a terminal disease, she relents. Whether her illness is a physical condition or a reflection of her longing for liberation from her gloomy life is left to the audience to analyze. Her proclamation of approval doesn’t quite satisfy her lover, however. Heinrich only wants her to kill herself to prove her love for him, not to unshackle herself from her miserable life of domesticity. Thus the perpetually pitiable Heinrich generates little sympathy for his self-absorbed behavior, which is exaggerated to to the point of parody.