When they meet each other for the first time, they have no idea of how they would influence each other’s fate. As pulling or pushing each other, they are slowly moved toward to a certain destination waiting for them from the very beginning, and we observed this progress with nervous fascination. They eventually get their wish, and we are reminded of that old saying: Be careful of what you wish for, you just might get it.
While it is mostly fictional, Austrian film “Amour Fou” is based on a real-life incident between one prominent German poet and a woman who unfortunately got involved with him. In the opening scene, we meet Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink), and she is preparing for a small social evening party to be held at her upper middle-class residence. Besides a famous singer who will give a performance for her guests, Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), who was one of the notable poets in Prussia during the early 19th century, is going to visit her house, and she cannot possibly be more thrilled about that as an admirer of his works.
When she meets her favorite artist during her evening meeting, Henriette sincerely tells him how much she has been impressed by his works including short story “The Marquise of O”. While not so flattered by her words, Heinrich, a neurotic guy who usually looks glum and aloof, flatly tells Henriette that she is not as happy in her life as she believes, and then he begins to regard her as someone unhappy enough to die along with him, though he merely fancies that morbid possibility in private at that point.
Besides, he already has someone else in his mind. He has been in love with his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), so he directly asks her whether she is willing to join his suicide plan, but she tactfully rejects his irrational request, while also reminding him that they will still remain as good friends despite their rather embarrassing moment. When Heinrich subsequently approaches to Henriette as an alternative, she also shows a similar response, for she feels fine with her affluent life in spite of what he said to her before. Her husband Friedrich (Stephan Grossmann) may be a dull guy, but he is a decent man devoted his wife unless he is occupied with his business, and they also have a young adorable daughter between them.
And then there comes a big change which makes Henriette view her life differently. After her sudden faint, she becomes ill, and her doctor cannot find the exact cause of her illness. While her hypnosis session suggests that it is the problem of her mind rather than her body, she and her husband are advised to get a second opinion from other doctors, and then she is diagnosed to be terminal with a few years to live. From our modern perspective, we surely have reasonable doubts on that diagnosis and the rudimentary methods behind it, but Henriette believes it without any doubt, and, not so surprisingly, what Heinrich once offered to her begins to look like something quite acceptable to her.
However, when Henrietta shows him her willingness to be his suicide partner, Heinrich finds himself being reluctant about what he has been openly wishing for, and the movie shows a wry sense of understated humor as he tries to deal with this unexpected situation. He rejects her with a selfish excuse at first, but then he comes to have a sort of relationship with her, and there is a dryly funny scene when they happen to stay at an inn for one night along with literary critic Adam Müller (Peter Jordan). Heinrich is so sensitive about how he and Henriette look in front of Müller that their dinner soon becomes very awkward to say the least, and it ultimately ruins what they initially planned for the next day. Maybe he really wants to die as he says, but Heinrich wants that to happen in a way he prefers, so there comes another comic moment when he reaches for a more preferable option.
As maintaining a certain degree of distance from its characters, the movie subtly draws our interest with mood and nuance. The camera usually observes the characters from static viewpoints, and we notice the precisely ordered composition of many of its indoor scenes. The characters in the film are always courteous and mannered in their words and behaviors, and we are tickled by the haughty attitude of several snobbish characters around Henriette and Heinrich. Their world is bound to experience some significant social changes sooner or later, but they still cannot accept that inevitable wave while often looking down at those common people below their class.
Under the director/writer Jessica Hausner’s restrained direction, Christian Friedel and Birte Schnöink are believable in the slow but fatal dynamics between their characters. Rather than passion or lust, their characters are attracted and then stuck to each other through a misguided idea of death, and there is a dark irony in that neither of them are capable of committing suicide alone. Even when she learns later that there is still some hope for her health, Henriette does not seem to be willing to hold on that possibility. She instead continues to let herself pushed by the pact between her and Heinrich, and so does Heinrich, who has probably never given any serious thought on his death wish. His incorrigibly romantic notion of suicide reminds me of a phrase written by Ernest Hemingway: Isn’t it pretty to think so?
“Amour Fou” is a cold black comedy of manners, and its irreversible finale is both pungent and devastating in its clinical execution. While observing its sad, tragic side, we are also reminded of its silly, absurd side involved with one undeniable fact of our life. We all do not want to die alone, so we understand Heinrich and Henriette to some degrees, but, as clearly pointed out by one supporting character in the film, we are all destined to be alone in our death no matter how we get there. When they come to see that, things do not look pretty to them at all.