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With Jessica Hausner’s new film Little Joe set to be released on Dec. 6, Film at Lincoln Center recently put together a complete retrospective of her work. “Jessica Hausner: The Miracle Worker” showed all the Austrian director’s works from some early shorts to her 2001 debut Lovely Rita to her 2014 period film Amour Fou. In Hausner’s introduction to the November 9th screening of Amour Fou, she admitted that she had wanted to write about double suicide years before making the movie but it was when she read about Heinrich von Kleist, a German poet who committed suicide together with a young woman, that the idea for the film materialized. Hausner said: “I smelled the lies in this romanticized version of history… before asking this woman, he first asked his best friend, his cousin and other people to die with him, but they all refused… Behind romantic stories are less romantic truths.”

Basing Amour Fou upon this ridiculous story from early 19th century Germany, Hausner presents the impossibility of romantic love. In the visually stunning comedy, von Kleist (Christian Friedel) describes himself as someone who suffers from the human condition, tired of the triviality of life. After failing to convince his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller) to commit suicide with him, he meets Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink), a young married middle-class woman who admires his poetry. Sensing her loneliness and isolation, he attempts to make Vogel his suicide partner.

Although set in the Romantic era, one finds the universality and timelessness of Amour Fou not only in the fact that it’s about love, but also in how Hausner engages with politics—the aristocrats in the movie respond to the then-recent freedom of peasants from serfdom, the possibility of a universal tax reform in Germany, and revolution in France. It’s hard not to be charmed by Hausner’s wit as she tackles both romanticism and modernity with such steady pace and humor. The oedipal structure is deconstructed from the very beginning of the film, as there’s no father figure in the house, but only Vogel’s overly stern mother, her mostly emotionless, if not a little frightening, daughter Pauline, and their maid. All the male characters are left emasculated, including Vogel’s husband who encourages her affair with von Kleist. 

Other scenes also allow room for Freudian interpretation. After von Kleist’s first failed attempt to enlist Vogel in his scheme, Vogel finds out that she’s ill with an unknown psychological disease; the only treatments offered to her are drinking chamomile tea and resting. Vogel’s so close to becoming one of Freud’s hysterical patients, the mad woman who only belongs to the attic. But in Hausner’s world, the fatal illness sets Vogel free as she decides that rather than dying alone, she prefers dying with von Kleist. She goes through something very similar to a session of psychoanalysis with a hypnotist, in which she confesses that the banality of life scares her. In contrast to to the brightness of other scenes throughout the movie,  reminiscent of idyllic renaissance paintings, the hypnosis is conducted in a dark room with light only on Vogel’s face and the hypnotist’s. It almost resembles a Caravaggio painting.

There’s only one other scene with lighting like this, the characters’ faces lit by candles. Von Kleist and Vogel have finally planned out their suicide, and the night before in their sketchy hotel, von Kleist reads a poem for Vogel—a never ending list of what Vogel is to him: a dove, an angel, heaven… No matter what he imagines her to be, that woman is not Vogel. As the shadow of the candlelight jumps on Vogel’s face, Schnöink offers a nuanced but moving performance, transitioning from expectancy to confusion to disappointment, finally ending the scene by stopping von Kleist from reading any further. Hausner’s lack of romanticism makes the scene almost hard to watch.

The genre and themes of the film reminds me of the 2018 film The Favourite; however, there’s something so quintessentially smart, quirky and dry that can belong to no one else but Jessica Hausner. Hausner never seeks to comfort or provide escapism for her audiences. Her characters are just as aware of what will happen to them in the future as the audience: Vogel’s daughter Pauline predicts her mother’s death, and Vogel’s husband starts to search for the letter before any knowledge of her plan. This presents an even greater pessimism than if we were to just witness characters unaware of the tragedy they are about to face. There’s no such thing as romantic love, whether in the 19th century or now, and we can do nothing about it.

Jessica Hausner summarized it perfectly in a recent interview with Film at Lincoln Center: “…love is not romantic. Love is very calculated. This very strange thing that love is actually very egotistical; I see myself in that other person, my better self, and I think all the best [relationships] can be disappointing, when you find the other person in the relationship is another person. It’s not at all the person that you thought you would love. All those thoughts about love are in the film Amour fou.”