Monday, March 16, 2015

AMOUR FOU: Jessica Hausner's smart look at 19th-Century romantic, political, economic and family life (and love) in an evolving Germany

What a fine film is AMOUR FOU, the new work by Jessica Hausnerwho also gave us Lourdes. As good as was that earlier movie, her new one is even better: richer, more specific and dealing with so many themes and ideas simultaneously in ways that makes them glitter and refract until you can see them from some very surprising angles. Ladies and gentlemen, this is movie art of a very high order. It is also, in its quiet way, as grandly entertaining as you could wish.

By carefully observing all her characters -- including the silent servants and family dogs -- Ms Hausner, pictured at left, manages to tweak amazing meaning and content from the confined and stilted behavior of the bourgeoisie of that time. Considering that the characters here are taken from a real-life situation -- involving the famous German poet, playwright and novelist, Heinrich von Kleist, and the suicide pact he hoped to make with a smitten young woman -- the movie is hugely (but again, quietly) funny as it decon-structs, via careful observa-tion, so many of the notions we still hold dear--including romantic love, family life, and medical diagnoses.

Ms Hausner has also cast her film extremely well, with the young actor -- Christian Friedel, above, right, of The White Ribbon and Chicken with Plums -- who plays von Kleist looking surprisingly like the portraits we have of the poet himself. In this role, Herr Friedel manages to be utterly real, ridiculously romantic, and an absolutely major twat. He is memorable in the most bizarre manner.

His sort-of inamorata, Henriette, is played by a relative newcomer, Birte Schnoeink (in foreground, above), and it is Henriette, together with those who surround her -- husband, mother, daughter, servant and dog -- who form the family unit that tries to protect the young woman from von Kleist, as well as from herself and from the medicine professionals of the day. All conspire to rob Henriette of her very life, and part of the irony, even of the bleak, black humor of the tale, comes from the way in which the supporting characters, especially the husband (a finely detailed performance by Stephan Grossman, below, left), try their best yet fail to make the necessary difference.

Romanticism and romantic love, at least as perceived by the Germans of this era, come in for a licking here, and yet I don't think that Ms Hauser wants necessarily to destroy them. She is simply showing us what adherence to such a lame-brained idea can produce. Henriette's husband's ability to think logically and honestly is also not enough; were he more emotional -- jealous, even -- he might have better achieved his ends. (His input as to Germany's quest to become a more just and democratic nation is also worth hearing. The film is quite properly concerned with more than mere romance.)

While Hauser's screenplay is alive with ideas, her visuals are equally strong. I can't remember having seen a more exquisitely shot and lighted "period" film in a long time. Everything from the walls and carpets to the colors and costumes seem near-perfect regarding their time and place. There's one scene at a dance, in which the camera remains stationery and faces and bodies move in and out of its range, that is simply splendid.

The movie also acts as a kind of trap into which our heroine falls. We watch in shock and then horror but we're also strangely amused by it all. Every era, I suppose, has its own special Waterloo, and the Age of Romanticism, which reaches some kind of nadir in this tale, now has its sad, comic memorial, too.

Amour Fou, another fine film from Film Movement (and one of the best this distributor has released in a long while) has its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, March 18, via a one-week run at Film Forum in New York City. In Los Angeles, look for it at Laemmle's Royal come Friday, March 20; then it's off to Miami, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Seattle and Winston-Salem. Click here (then scroll down) to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

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