Searching for lost innocence
Dace Lea Briede, Film reviewer

Fatigued by new and angry cinema, one can observe a small but powerful trend that focuses on an existential and mildly idealistic atmosphere of romanticism. this may possibly be only logical; in the turbulent reality of the 21st century such films offer a visual and mental space in which to reflect about life, death and the existence that lies between these two factors. thus, two years ago lars von trier presented his viewers with Melancholy, his most most moving and romantic film yet, which, accompanied by the music of wagner, put a full stop to the pointlessness of an individual’s existence and inescapable loneliness. jarmusch played around with the unbearable lightness of individualism before a pack of zombies and the lonely idealism of escapism. even hollywood bad boy quentin tarantino quoted the nibelung saga in his western. jessica hausner’s Amour Fou avoids stylistic kitsch and approaches the portrayal of the times directly, but the set-up of the film is peculiar. it is based on the biography of german romantic poet and playwright heinrich von kleist, and in a quaint way the film finds the comical in situations where people wouldn’t otherwise laugh, such as when the deaths of real people are considered.

Kleist, a comparatively little known author in latvia. the restless idealist/individualist did not receive a great deal of recognition during his lifetime; only two of his plays were performed in the theatre, and his dark, destructive, at times even base realism-filled characters didn’t really harmonise with the spirit of the times. finally, tired of the battle with the pungency of existence, he signed an agreement with a woman named henriette Vogel, and in the autumn of 1811 they committed suicide together. kleist first shot henriette and then himself. the situation, which may seem a fitting culmination for the suffering of a creative genius in those times, gains an absurd tone, however, when we find out that kleist and henriette weren’t even lovers. the poet had for a time been despairingly searching for a partner with whom to commit suicide, offering this appetising position to a number of women in a row. it was finally taken up by henriette, who was possibly terminally ill. this is also where hausner’s interest in the specific material is based.

But instead of going down the path of classical biographical narrative, hausner concentrates her attention on henriette, revealing the poet’s personality through the eyes of a woman who is uncorrupted by the world of ideas (it is true, however, as can later be concluded, that she has great potential to become corrupted). we see a fragile young lady in delicate empire-style dresses who arranges flowers, cares for her young daughter’s musical education and announces in some social chit chat about the freeing of serfs that she finds joy in being her husband’s property and wouldn’t even entertain the thought of freeing herself from this status. in a similar discussion with her husband, she expresses remorse for an acquaintance, a famous opera singer. in the singer’s glamorous position and lifestyle coveted by many, henriette can only see the potential for making some fatal mistake (oh, the irony!) in view of everyone and to then become subject to the condemnation of society. the ennui of the aristocracy, distanced from reality, is demonstrated in short, carefully planned compositions, of which henriette is not yet conscious, but the viewer already anticipates – soon unrest will barge into her life.

The cause of the unrest, obviously, is none other than kleist, who, tired of the battle between ideals and reality (and, i would like to add, also of his battle with himself), wishes to put an end to it all in quite a werther-like spirit, but he doesn’t wish to do it alone. his dear cousin marie rejects his plan, and so – without mincing words – kleist selects henriette and, with the purposeful calculation uncharacteristic of a poet, seizes onto the levers of persuasion. the teamwork of director jessica hausner and actor christian friedel, who plays the main role (lovers of european cinema will remember him from michael haneke’s the White ribbon), accurately and adequately portrays kleist’s disregard for and, possibly, also a true childish lack of understanding of society’s norms, which is another feature of the young werther (and isn’t it interesting how very much this historical character coincides with goethe’s hero, who is also partly built on biographic material, but how different and conflicting these personalities really were in life). already on their second meeting kleist informs henriette without surplus ceremony that she is outstandingly suited to his fatalistic plan because she doesn’t love anyone and nobody loves her either. despite the poet’s ambitions to be intellectually superior and deeper than average philistines, whom he so obviously despises, kleist’s superficiality is accurately revealed in this and similar pronouncements, which he perceives as completely self-evident. as the film develops, it gains the features of an obscure comedy (but only those who are able to smile at the saddest jokes of the coen brothers, kafka’s literature and kierkegaard’s statements will be laughing), which to a great degree is based on outstanding dialogue. those who speak german will get particular pleasure in hearing the stiff, grammatically immaculate constructions of statements in situations where real, living people would succumb to the power of passion and maybe (how scandalous!) even scream.
Jessica Hausner. Amour Fou. Film still. 2014
Publicity photos
Courtesy of Riga International Film Festival
Visually, Amour Fou resembles one of the amusements of the portrayed period, namely, tableau vivant or living paintings. the fantastic interiors, which have been produced in such a fine and detailed way that they could be equally suited to a stanley kubrick film, serve as an outstanding background for the minimalism of the activities on the screen. in an interview, hausner revealed that she gave the actors precise instructions and left very little space for personal interpretation of roles, which in the case of Amour Fou creates an effect of a powerful, taught string. minimal gestures, restrained movements and static scenes in which the actors seem to be merely a part of the interior decorating reveal the aristocracy’s small, discreet neuroses that have resulted from the shackles of society’s norms. influenced by the paintings of Vermeer, the director works a lot with yellow and blue colours and close-ups, making the film into a visual delight of classicism. one would like to sometimes pause individual scenes and observe them longer than the seconds allocated by the film.

The film’s tragicomic message culminates in an ironic and emotionally painful suicide scene. throughout the course of the film, kleist tries to unravel the paradox of an individual always being alone when he dies. his cousin marie also points this out in one or another conversation, but kleist nevertheless decides to prove the opposite and is hopelessly disappointed (oh, kleist, if only you’d had the opportunity to read heidegger, you’d know that this could have been foreseen). the scene is made even heavier by the fact that the moment is so obviously banal; it has nothing of the nobility of romeo-and-juliet passion, nothing of tristan-and-isolde tragedy, just a weariness rooted in boredom, mistaken choices and two dead strangers. and, if at the moment of death we are truly alone and life is the opportunity to become close to others, then one feels sorry for the heroes of the story, who have, in places, completely mixed up these capacities and, having declined the opportunities to become close (i.e., to live), have willingly ended their existence in the prison of loneliness.

As an interesting background to the story about the relationship between kleist and henriette, it is possible to observe a quite adequate portrayal of early 19th-century prussia, where mozart’s Das Veilchen – a composition about a crushed blue flower of longing – is played on social evenings and young girls play beethoven’s Wo die Berge so blau, which expresses the desire to remain in the mountains forever, where all heartaches fade away. guests at social occasions express outrage about the new tax policy and the releasing of serfs into freedom, which, in the aristocracy’s view, will only lead to mass unrest, and everything, quite everything, provides evidence about one thing, namely, the wish to return to an earlier time and place that was good, safe and understandable. the motives of the other heroes of the story are mainly utilitarian, yet kleist raises this aspiration to a platonic drive to reach an ideal world. this, possibly, is also a factor that will make Amour Fou ideologically attractive to thinking, 21st-century cinema-goers. unable to cope with the progress of the pace of life, people’s desire to return to more simple times can be observed ever more often, as they search for a lifestyle from before, from beyond. the heroes of the story are still unaware that change is unfortunately inescapable and that very soon a wave of revolution will wash over europe. but that is another story.

Translator into English: Uldis Brūns
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