Amour Fou (2014) Blu Ray (Arrow Academy) starring Christian Friedel
A suicide pact
Amour Fou is based on a true story. It is set in early 19th-century Berlin and features Birte Schnoeink as Henriette, the wife of wealthy Friedrich (Stephan Grossmann). She becomes fascinated with the fatalistic works of a hopelessly depressed poet named Heinrich (Christian Friedel). Heinrich himself is trying to persuade his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller) to form a suicide pact with him out of a perceived mutual love and understanding that he imagines himself being in with her. However, in reality, Marie doesn’t reciprocate his unique set of wants and needs.
Things take a dramatic turn when Henriette suddenly faints at the dinner table. Berlin’s finest doctors diagnose that she is terminally ill with an advanced ulcer. Henriette’s feelings around her impending demise only draw her closer to Heinrich, thus resulting in her entering the pact in Marie’s without Friedrich’s clear knowledge. However, things become more complicated when the doctor proposes that she is taken to Paris (where the state of medicine is considerably more advanced) in order to get a second opinion.
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A studied Germanic period comedy-drama
Regardless of its French name (meaning “crazy love”), there’s something über-Germanic about the Austria/Luxembourg/Germany co-production Amour Fou. The film is played in a very studied, dour and, on occasion, dryly comedic manner. Almost every shot is static and all feature very deliberate and distant framing of the actors (both human and dog, the latter of which seem to have far more life than the former). As with the excellent Lady Macbeth, the film eschews the traditional “stately home open for tourists” approach to set decoration in favour of sparse, brightly-coloured walls and starkly-patterned fixtures.
It all serves to imbue an atmosphere of cold isolation, one of the wealthy going through their mannered motions bereft of true happiness. While Henriette’s daughter plays the piano there’s a noticeable lack of joy or life evident from those sitting around to “appreciate” it. Friedrich seems to spend most of his time debating the country’s taxation policies. A later dance sequence involving Henriette and Heinrich feels painfully mechanical and over-rehearsed; tellingly, it is subsequently referred to in dialogue as a metaphor personal freedom giving way to dancing into the lap of pre-determined fate.
The burden of freedom
Despair at freedom is a central and recurring theme here. One character opines: “And that is why the peasant is to be freed? Merely so he can pay taxes? - How unjust.” Freedom doesn’t bring happiness - nor, seemingly, does aristocratic wealth, considering how little enjoyment is taken in it during the film’s runtime. Spiritual and existential questions are asked but never satisfactorily answered.
This all would have been worthy but frankly unwatchable if it wasn’t for the occasional moments of dark humour, much of it derived from Heinrich’s pitiful attempts to seduce Marie into his fatalistic pact despite the fact that she politely (but quite clearly) has no interest in participating in such an insane thing. The performances are also excellent in their own low-key way: Birte Schnoeink looks pained and resigned throughout, Christian Friedel likewise. Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller, however, steals the show with her polite smile and fluttering eyelids as a woman who feels sorry for Friedrich in the most subtly patronising manner possible.
Amour Fou isn’t a film for everyone’s taste: it’s downbeat, minimal, deliberate and far from easy entertainment. However, its own bleak sense of intelligence, irony and grim tragicomedy makes it a unique and quietly compelling experience.
Runtime: 96 mins
Dir: Jessica Hausner
Script: Jessica Hausner
Starring: Christian Friedel, Birte Schnoeink, Stephan Grossmann, Sandra Hüller
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
As with Lost in Paris this is a recent film shot on the digital format. Hence, the film’s pastel colours are a treat for the eyes and the detail unwaveringly sharp. The sound is almost glacially pristine in its own restrained way.
Commentary with Jessica Hausner
A decent if rather stop-start commentary from the film’s writer/director. She came up with the original idea in 2005 about a double suicide pact between two people who meet on the internet. However, she sat on the idea for some years before ultimately basing it on the true pact between German poet Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel. She also explains that she chose to stage the film in a deliberate, planned manner to evoke the controlled and repressed mannerisms of 19th-century people.
She touches on the film’s various themes she wanted to bring to the film - the ambiguity of love, contradicting truths and so on - but reveals that she decided to keep the shots distant from the actors so that viewers will watch as spectators and decide the underlying details of the story themselves. Her approach is to be applauded.
Interview with Jessica Hausner
This German-language interview covers much the same ground as the commentary: how she came up with the idea, the main themes she attempted to present, the film’s style and so on. Towards the end, however, she reveals that she found little historical material about the real Henriette Vogel but based her passive on-screen demeanour on the assumption that she would have to be in order to enter the suicide pact.
During the commentary Jessica talked about the film originally having more outdoor scenes. However, she ultimately decided to cut several of them out to have a more “indoor” based picture to reflect the introverted and repressive climate. Four of the excised exterior scenes are featured here.
A music video which Jessica Hausner made for the eccentric Austrian pop music duo Attwenger. It’s a rather minimal affair featuring a man “dad dancing” in front of a fire exit. It’s an amusing inclusion even if it is rather tenuously connected with the film itself due to the involvement of the same director.
A trailer rounds out the extras.
This is a thoughtfully-crafted and subtly humorous film which is likely to cause a divergent range of opinions amongst viewers. However, those who like to like to digest the subtext of a film as they view it will find it highly rewarding. Arrow have once again solidly presented the film with a decent quota of extras.