Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou makes Emma Street contemplate the wallpaper and suicide.
Anyone who loves a boring, depressing Austrian period drama stuffed full of long lingering shots and some truly ugly wallpaper will find something to delight in when viewing Jessica Hausner’s new film Amour Fou.
It tells the story of Heinrich (Christian Friede), a Romantic poet who wishes to overcome the inevitability of death by, well, killing himself. I don’t think he has entirely thought it through, to be honest . The problem is that he’s not content just to off himself quietly. He is determined to find a woman to enter into a suicide pact with him. The self-centred twit.
His first choice of death-buddy is his cousin Marie who, to Heinrich’s obvious bafflement, really isn’t all that keen on his proposal that he shoots her and then turns the gun on himself. In fact she turns him down flat. ‘But it will make me happy,’ he tells her. Yes, because your happiness was clearly the bit of the whole “becoming dead” plan that Marie was having difficulty getting her head around.
Heinrich is, it has to be said, a moody sod. I don’t want to refer to him as “depressed”. Lots of people have depression – including me, come to think of it. I am fairly confident that wanting to shoot other people in order to have them demonstrate their love for you is not a usual manifestation of the illness. Although writing shitty poetry almost certainly is.
Amour Fou isn’t primarily Heinrich’s story, however. Most of the film is focussed on Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), the wife of a middle-class businessman and small-scale patron of the arts. Almost everything that happens within this film takes place in the same few rooms in Henriette’s house – the drawing, dining and bed rooms which are both sparse and stuffy at the same time with their fussy, horrible wallpapers and overbearing paintings. There is something almost oppressive in seeing the same meticulously arranged furniture from slightly different angles in every single scene.
Henriette invites Heinrich to one of her and her husband’s artistic salons and seems rather taken both by his poetry and his awkward, shifty-looking presence. Although, in both cases, it’s hard to see why.
Having seemingly accepted that Marie isn’t on board with the whole planned suicide idea, Heinrich then presents the idea to Henriette instead. He points out that as she’s lonely, she might as well die anyway. Henriette responds that she has a perfectly nice husband and a young daughter who relies on her but Heinrich is adamant that she’s lonely anyway. It’s not clear at this stage whether Henriette is giving his offer any serious thought. She doesn’t call him a lunatic and tell him to stay the fuck away so she’s a good deal more understanding about the whole situation than I would have been in the circumstances.
Everything changes when Henriette gets sick. The doctor isn’t sure what’s wrong with her. He thinks it may be a brain tumour or it may be something else. He’s definitely sure that it’s terminal though. The symptoms are a little vague, consisting of one off-screen fainting fit and a few references to spasms. Mostly, we just see Henriette winsomely sitting around doing needlepoint and looking demurely passive. With the spectre of death looming around her even more menacingly than the wallpaper, Henriette begins to reconsider the whole planned suicide proposal of Heinrich’s. The idea of being master of her own finale begins to look a bit appealing.
I have no idea why Henriette would possibly want to spend time with truculent, miserable, man-child, Heinrich, though. OK, sure, she might have thought she was dying of a tumour but even so, there’s got to be better ways of dealing with your supposedly imminent death than indulging the self-aggrandising fantasies of a Romantic narcissist.
Her husband (Stephan Grossmann), a quiet, slightly Tim Vine-ish looking chap, gets a very raw deal throughout. He consistently shows himself to be loyal and loving towards his wife. It’s hard to understand what Henriette’s feelings are towards her husband. She seems to respect him and want to minimise the harm that she causes him and yet is willing to betray him in the most terrible way.
The film is based on a true story. That of the German poet, Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel who died together in 1811. If they were lovers in real life, this is barely hinted at in the film where the characters share little more than anguished glances with not so much as a kiss to soften the mutually destructive relationship between them.
For most of Amour Fou, very little happens at all. This means when everything does come to a head, it seems almost unbearably brutal.
Things were never going to end happily. Life, according to Heinrich, is futile and transitory and sometimes the only real answer is to end it all. If only to get away from the terrible wallpaper.
Amour Fou is released on Friday.