Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner has an unerring talent for examining, skeptically but never cynically, grand notions about destiny: What we perceive as — or have convinced ourselves to be — the workings of fate, whether religious or romantic, is ultimately better understood as arbitrary or coincidental occurrences. In Lourdes (2009), Hausner’s previous film, the “miraculous” healing of a woman, who had made a pilgrimage to the eponymous town in southwestern France to be cured of her multiple sclerosis, is soon banalized by bureaucracy, as the former wheelchair-user must have this act of divine intervention officially certified by the village’s medical office. Amour Fou, the director’s latest, likewise finds the absurdities in the most solemn of scenarios: a real-life double suicide from 1811, annihilation conceived of as the purest expression of love.
Taking off from, yet not slavishly adhering to, the particulars involved in the near-simultaneous deaths of the morbidly self-absorbed writer Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) and the solidly bourgeois wife and mother Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink), Amour Fou begins with one of Hausner’s hallmarks: precise, painterly compositions. The film opens with a blast of effulgence, as Henriette arranges, in a room with pale-blue walls, a large bouquet of daffodils in preparation for a dinner that she and her husband, Friedrich (Stephan Grossmann), are hosting that night, and to which Heinrich has been invited. Of his novella The Marquise of O, about an upstanding widow who somehow finds herself pregnant, Heinrich tells his hostess, an admirer of the volume, “I try to describe what engenders fear, and perhaps desire.”
The remark will prove to be the least overweening the writer will make. “I have become too sensitive….Nothing upon this earth can help me,” he laments to his adored cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller) before delivering this proposition: “Would you care to die with me?” Rebuffed, Heinrich utters the same proposal to Henriette — his gesture motivated not by fiery passion but by dull convenience. The eminently conventional woman rejects him, too, at first — until a diagnosis of a lethal tumor convinces her that Heinrich’s plan may be the noblest way to perish.
As Hausner wryly demonstrates, neither the adjective nor the noun of the film’s title — “crazy love” — proves accurate; if anything, Heinrich and Henriette’s is solely a transactional pact (and perhaps a manifestation of folie à deux). Even Hausner’s decision to deploy a Gallic expression for her movie’s name typifies her wit: Several of Amour Fou‘s Berliner characters are suffering extreme Francophobia, appalled that their country is importing some of the republican ideals introduced by the French Revolution. In terms of her own rebellious act, Henriette never lets on to Friedrich that she is planning to end her life. But she never hides her chaste relationship with Heinrich from her spouse of twelve years, who calmly states he “would respect her choice” should she decide she’d rather be with the writer. Before her life is snuffed out, Henriette is both fully aware of her co-conspirator’s solipsism and deeply touched by the selfless devotion of her husband. In her final seconds of life, she is on the verge of a declaration. Henriette’s last thought will forever be a mystery, but the grandeur of Romanticism is tartly, pleasingly demystified.