By Sam Inglis @24FPSUK @24fps.co.uk
Lourdes, Jessica Hausner’s third film, was my film of the year in 2010. Austere and thought provoking, it can be read in many different ways, and continues to fascinate and challenge with every viewing. This, quite apart from everything else about it, is why Amour Fou is such a massive disappointment.
Set in 1811, Amour Fou takes place in what appears to be an upper middle class home. where Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) and her husband Freiderich (Stephan Grossman) live what seems to be a relatively secure life, raising their young daughter and having dinner parties for their friends. At one of these parties Henriette meet Heinrich (Christian Friedel), a depressive poet who, having been rejected by his cousin, asks Henriette to join him in a suicide pact. She refuses, but changes her mind after being diagnosed with a tumour which is expected to kill her.
Time is a funny thing. At 237 minutes, Sion Sono’s Love Exposure is one of the shortest films I’ve ever seen, racing by with an energy that few movies can match. At just 90 minutes, Amour Fou is one of the longest films I’ve trudged through in the past 12 months. It feels so desperately stretched.
The whole film is constructed of small variations on repetitive moments. We have scenes of Henrich bemoaning his depression, which is so vaguely grounded (he’s “disappointed with life”, join the club Heinrich) that his film long quest to find someone to die with him seems risible. We have scenes of Friederich and other rich people bemoaning the new tax system that is being introduced. This might be interesting if Hausner gave us a reason to care about it, but instead it feels like she found herself short of a scene or two and decided just to slot this material in. Henriette, disappointingly, is notably poorly developed. She hangs around her house, she goes to parties, she sings sometimes, but mostly she looks waifish and winsome. Most of her scenes involve her either saying she’s decided that she won’t join Henirich’s suicide pact or that she’s changed her mind and she will. And vice versa, ad-nauseum.
If the utter tedium weren’t bad enough, the film’s one attempt at a twist is so obvious it’s almost laughable. I honestly began to think that Hausner would not go for the closing revelation I had predicted because it was so hackneyed, so amateurish, so clangingly obvious. She goes for it, and it lands with a thud just before the credits roll.
Five years between films hasn’t altered Hausner’s style behind the camera. Her images are still largely wide, often off centre and generally involve limited camera movement. In her better films this encourages us to become sucked in to the frames, to study the details but, while the design of the shots is often striking, here Hausner’s formalism works against her.
Amour Fou was shot digitally and the pin sharp crispness of the images doesn’t fit the film’s period setting. Alongside the heavily designed but often very plain images and setting it gives a feeling that lacks texture and feels incredibly of its time, rather than the time of the story. This contributes to a sense, present throughout, that we’re watching people play dress up and say lines at each other. Hausner’s framing often gives the feel of a proscenium and the overall feeling of watching people act on a stage never goes away.
There’s a similar problem with the acting. Birte Schnoeink has the sort of delicate looks that fit her character; a sickly young woman with a small life (though one she never seems dissatisfied with), but her performance and that of Christian Freidel are stilted. Perhaps Hausner is trying to get across the emotional repression of the time with Henriette and the taboo of breaking that with Heinrich, especially in a letter he reads her late in the film, but it doesn’t work. The delivery is flat, Henriette’s impassivity never feels like a character choice and that deep well of emotion we should feel from Heinrich as he tries to talk either Henriette or his cousin (played by the far too good for this nonsense Sandra Huller) into his suicide pact, has more of the feeling of a man reading his ‘feelings’ from a cue card.
I was anticipating Amour Fou with great excitement, but this is a 180 degree shift in form from Hausner. It’s every bit as boring and straightforward as Lourdes was hypnotic and searching. I can only hope that this is a blip and that Hausner won’t wait another five years to correct it.
Amour Fou is out on Friday February 6th.