Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Amour Fou (April 9th and 11th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[AMOUR FOU screens Thursday April 9th at 6:45 pm and Saturday April 11th at 8:55 pm at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. ]

Review by Milan Paurich
Writer-director Jessica (LOURDES) Hausner’s AMOUR FOU is a very particular, some might say rarefied, kind of fun for cinephiles who enjoy pinpointing various directorial influences. But since cine-literate audiences are increasingly hard to find, I’m not sure how many will be able to spot early Werner Herzog (THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER, HEART OF GLASS), Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (THE CHRONICLE OF MAGDALENA BACH), Manoel de Oliveira (THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA), Eric Rohmer (THE MARQUISE OF O…”), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT), Robert Bresson (FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER, THE DEVIL, PROBABLY) or even Carl Dreyer (GERTRUD, DAY OF WRATH). Which is a shame since familiarity with those touchstones and signifiers of echt arthouse cinema would surely enhance one’s appreciation and enjoyment of Hausner’s delectably bent, “based-on-a-true-story” period yarn.

Inspired by a 1811 suicide pact between German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, Hausner approaches the material with a sense of comic deadpan that Jacques Tati himself would have admired. The largely affectless performances (you don’t know whether they’re bad actors or were simply directed that way; probably the latter) help create a distancing effect that, under the circumstances, is perfectly understandable. 

Certainly getting into the mindset of characters willing to die for love—or some hyper-aestheticized concept of amour—takes some doing, particularly in this post-ironic era. We watch in bemused horror as Kleist (Christian Friedel who carries himself with the pomposity and callow airs of a deeply pretentious prep school student) makes a case for reciprocal suicide to Vogel (Birte Schnoeink whose ineffable, beatific blankness gives her the feel of a 19th century Manson Girl), a proper bourgeois housewife/mother who’s recently been diagnosed with a fatal disease.

It’s clear that Vogel is some kind of hothouse flower just waiting to be plucked when Kleist makes her acquaintance at a salon musicale. She’s not even Kleist’s first choice to join him in the lethal pact: cousin Marie (Sandra Hueller) has already rebuffed his request. (Of course, “Would you care to die with me? With pistols it would be quick,” is hardly the greatest pick-up line.) Kleist somehow manages to convince Vogel that, despite an attentive husband (Stephan Crossmann) and doting daughter (Paraschiva Dragus), she’s deeply lonely and profoundly unloved. “I’m looking for a partner in death, not life,” he cheerfully tells her. 

Despite the funereal tone and at times somnambulant pacing, Hausner injects a good deal of funny ha-ha mirth into the proceedings. Vogel’s maid (Alissa Wilms, a dead ringer for the young Tilda Swinton in her Derek Jarman movies) is a certifiable hoot, as is her scolding, snobbish mother (Barbara Schnitzler). In fact, it’s Vogel’s imperious mom who has the film’s best line. While being introduced to hot-new-writer-kid-on-the-block Kleist, she summarily dismisses his work by saying, “I really prefer Goethe.”

As unexpected as the frequent laughter is how curiously touching AMOUR ROU becomes at the very end. Even with all of Hausner’s distancing techniques and the flatly declamatory acting, Schnoeink’s Vogel somehow manages to break your heart. When she tells Kleist, “I have become the woman you saw in me earlier,” it’s hard not to shed at least a tiny little tear. After all, this is the same woman who earlier claimed, “I am my husband’s property, and I should never dare to demand my freedom,” when the subject of personal freedom came up during a political debate with her husband’s cynical business associates.

Vogel has at last become her own woman, even if she has to (literally) die to achieve said liberation. 3 out of 4 stars.

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