It is perhaps the most rigorously stylized full-length film ever made. (The Gus Van Sant of Elephant and Gerry is a wild expressionist compared with the Jessica Hausner of Amour Fou.) Every scene – except for a few outdoor shots – is an Empire interior, in which some individuals have been precisely posed. Every detail has been thought out. Every cup and saucer, every vase, every painting on the wall, every
Amour Fou casts light on the oddly insubstantial milieu of Goethe and Germany in that period. Vienna had its music. Paris had its art. Germany had its literature. But German literature of the time, despite possible protestations from German language departments, was not the equivalent of Viennese music or French painting.
With the French revolution, the bourgeoisie became arts’ new audience. Painting and music eased the transition of bourgeois behavior from the classical ideal of gracious stoicism to the romantic one of repressed passion; with a few exceptions – none of them in the German language – literature did not have the same effect. The bourgeois were only confused by works such as Goethe’s Werther, von Kleist’s The Marquis of O- and the reams and reams of purple passages and poetry ostensibly glorifying nature, but in truth sending nature to perdition and replacing it with an anthropomorphized outdoors, all mood and emotion, exemplified by Hölderlin.
...here in the mountains,
Deep below silver crags
And the rejoicing green,
Where the shuddering forests daylong
And the heads of the rocks, one over another,
That failure of literature is one of the themes of Amour Fou. The banality of von Kleist, whom they refer to as “the poet,” goes completely unnoticed by the other characters, who respond to it in kind. Goethe is sacralized and held at arm’s length. The confusion of nature with emotion – essentially, a way to deal with the turbulence of romanticism and still remain correct and polite – is made clear in Amour Fou, with an explicitness not accorded to many of its other ideas, in the many musical scenes at the Vogels’, most often with the daughter playing the piano and the heroine, Henriette, singing. One of the things that point to the director, Hausner, as being a genius is that we hear the same two songs sung over and over again. A lesser director would have diverted us with a selection of period parlor pieces.
Okay, but that’s just one facet of Amour Fou. Here is another: it is hilarious. You don’t laugh out loud while you watch it, but you wonder why you aren’t laughing out loud. Everyone is so serious, and Hausner, herself, seems so serious, it would seem almost gauche, at least impolite, to laugh. Still, what you see and hear is deeply, madly hilarious. Just look again at that wallpaper. One reviewer described the von Kleist character as “po-faced” and that is exactly right. But the whole film is po-faced.
Some reviewers – mostly European ones -- caught the humor; American reviewers did not get beyond the plot’s superficial tragedy, the double suicide (with the flavor of a murder-suicide) of Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel. These reviewers either said the that plot was poorly presented – in which, since they were looking for the meaning of the film in its dramatic skeleton, they were quite correct – or, knowing that more celebrated reviewers than they had liked the film, struggled to imagine ways in which one might be moved by what seemed to them stilted and dull.
Some movies, a very few, are sufficient unto themselves. They are only what they are, they are not something else. Amour Fou is one of them. Most movies, including most movie masterpieces, are works of dramatic art. As such, they employ archetypal dramatic situations to which we are emotionally attuned and which, therefore, easily move us. They push our buttons.
Both Elvira Madigan (which, somehow, I had come to think of as an Ingmar Bergman film, conflating it with Summer with Monika, but now I see was directed by Bo Widerberg) and Amour Fou build up to a double suicide. Elvira Madigan (also, incidentally, based on a real incident) draws on the audience’s automatic, reflexive reaction to such tropes as the renunciation of material things for the sake of love, a young woman’s blossoming realization of her individuality, a couple clinging to love through hardship, groundless jealousy, despair and sacrifice. Amour Fou has its own array of dramatic elements, also familiar tropes – marital complacency, a mother’s love for her child, starry-eyed and misguided celebrity worship, husbandly forbearance, incurable disease – but it pointedly does not engage the audience with them. It does not push our buttons, although our buttons are activated, ready to be pushed. In fact, it erects a barrier between the audience and the drama, a barrier of stylization and realistic and banal – not romantic and heroic – characterization. A plot that could be a tear-jerker is presented as so obviously absurd that we feel we should be laughing; yet the deadpan seriousness of the direction, the earnestness with which the characters do and say such absurd things, and the exquisite beauty of the images, keeps us from laughing. The wild humor of the film becomes just another stylized element of it, like the wallpaper, the insipid indecision of Frau Vogel and the insufferable pomposity of von Kleist.