A pitch-black period comedy takes all the romance out of a Romantic-era suicide pact.
Set in Romantic-era Prussia, director Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou deliberately de-romanticizes every aspect of the real-life suicide pact it depicts. On the shores of a lake outside Berlin on November 21, 1811, Frankfurt-born writer and philosopher Heinrich von Kleist drew a pistol and killed Henriette Vogel (the terminally ill wife of another man) and then himself.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Amour Fou’s central couple falls victim to cruel irony and miscommunication, but whereas Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers seemed to gain some small serenity in their shared death bed, Vogel (Birte Schnöink) and Kleist (Christian Friedel) remain in death as they were in life: constricted within the coils of an aristocracy that's becoming more anachronistic each day. “Puppets,” as Kleist describes his milieu, “moving to a fixed choreography.” But while the poet Kleist is the more dramatic of the pair, Hausner’s film focuses more on Vogel’s suffocating existence.
Bound by duties as a daughter, mother, and wife, Vogel finds herself identifying, though she can't quite say why, with the titular character in Kleist’s The Marquise of O, a mysteriously impregnated widow raped in her sleep by a suitor she previously fancied. This in spite of her husband Friedrich’s insistence that “incidents of that kind rarely happen.” Unfortunately, his ignorance about the prevalence of rape seems as timeless as his ignorance about his wife’s depression. Her doctor, following a diagnostic bloodletting, guesses that “anxious and sad” Vogel suffers from a “female complaint” and a “spiritual disorder.” Replies Friedrich, preoccupied with his commission to collect a new tax from the working class: “Thank god it isn’t serious.” Under hypnosis, she confesses she's been experiencing ordinary horror on the regular. “The flowers,” she says, “frighten me.” To her, their sickly sweet smell is nothing but a reminder of the eventual decay of everything she holds dear. Unable to remember what she’s told them upon awakening, she asks her husband what she said. “Nothing important,” he reassures her.
With a husband like that, who needs murder-suicide obsessed flings? Kleist, soon after meeting her, tells Vogel she is “bereft of friends,” and helpfully elaborates, “No one loves you.” Lying awake at night in the twin bed positioned away from Friederich’s at a 90-degree angle, Vogel begins to see the validity in these arguments. But alas, Kleist’s remedy for her despondency isn’t to create a new future together, but rather end the present all together. “Would you care to die with me?” he asks. “If you love me, you will do this for me.”
Whatever romantic edge existed is soon blunted, as it’s quickly revealed that this is not the first time Kleist has made such a proposal, nor the first time it’s been refused. His cousin Maria, soon to wed another, was his original intended, but Maria, it seems, is even cynical about her nihilism. “I agree that life is meaningless and people are cruel,” she concedes, “but there’s no need to let it bother you so much.”
Unlike Maria, Vogel, feeling a clear sense of obligation, if not outright love, gradually warms to the notion of expressing fiery passion by way of a chilly tombstone, especially as her doctors’ diagnoses grow significantly grimmer. By that time, however, it’s become obvious the doomed couples’ proclamations of mutual ardor and dying devotion are as meaningless in this coffin-black comedy as the Prussian aristocracy’s efforts to “cling to their privilege like a dog to a bone.” Both are pathetic pantomimes that seem to fool no one, their perpetrators least of all. Only sardonic Maria appears willing to speak the truth. “In the end,” she cautions Kleist, “everybody has to die alone.”