Amour fou ★★★★

[8]

When you have seen a number of mid-period Ozu films, and have accustomed yourself to his compositional style and flawless pacing, you sort of internalize his vision in a way. It becomes imprinted on your cognitive pallette, as it were. Most of us start with the black-and-white films, so upon first seeing one of Ozu's masterworks in color, it's mindblowing: how could a sensibility so attuned to a specific set of parameters so successfully accommodate the addition of a new universe of choices?

This is a strange way to start talking about Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou. However, this film's meticulous mise-en-scene is bracing and revelatory, in part because Hausner owes so much to late Dreyer here. In fact, it's as though Dreyer had gone on to incorporate color into his Ordet/Gertrud method, and it's like seeing everything anew.

The way Hausner articulates the domestic space in which Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink) resides - which to a certain extent defines her - is so spare, so subtle, until we really spend the time and allow its quiet power to radiate. Think of the placement of the little girl's ball on the lower right of the frame, just throwing the symmetry off and casting a narrow shadow across the carpet, for example; or the frequent positioning of the Vogels' Weimaraner in a small pocket of the image, like a forgotten glimmer of normalcy. As with Dreyer, these spatial arrangements achieve an unnerving dialectic. They are so fixed and fastidious as to paradoxically emanate a spiritual radiance from their insistent materiality.

This would be impressive enough if Amour Fou had nothing else to offer. But the physical insistence of domesticity, the thickness of drapes but also their luminous color saturation, speaks directly to Henriette's subject position. Heinrich von Kleist (the beautifully vapid Christian Friedel) believes she is a perfect candidate for his doomed-Romantic suicide pact because, in his self-effacing arrogance, he truly feels she has nothing worth living for. (Recall that his cousin Marie, played by Sandra Hüller, was Heinrich's first choice for the double-death pact.) Henriette's interest in Kleist, and her psychological illness, point to dissatisfactions that cannot yet be named, but Hausner and Schnoeink make it obvious throughout that her uncertainty and confusion is a far more reasonable intellectual stance than Kleist's melancholic retreat.

This contest of wills, which cannot really be a contest at all (more like two competing, available modes of passivity) dovetails perfectly with the film's political subtext. Following the decisive defeat of Napoleon, Prussia was in a state of flux, struggling to maintain the monarchy even as the writing was on the wall. The Germans could turn back the French, but not their democratic philosophies. Raymond Williams often spoke of historical formations as uneven combinations of the residual, the dominant, and the emergent.

Amour Fou, without belaboring the point, depicts just such a moment of transition. But more importantly, Hausner shows that these complex revolutions were always written across the bodies and the psyches of women, even as they were presumed to be cordoned off from such "matters of the world." What an extraordinarily intelligent film.

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