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'Amour Fou' review: A suicidal poet

Still of Birte Schnoeink as Henriette, in "Amour

Still of Birte Schnoeink as Henriette, in "Amour Fou," set in Berlin during the Romantic Era. Credit: coop99 filmproduction

Among the preconceptions exploded by Austrian director Jessica Hausner in her mischievously titled "Amour Fou" is the idea that the "period piece" is intended to re-create a somehow superior past -- one where people may have been flawed, but the decor, at least, possessed some kind of intelligence. In Hausner's vision of early 1800s Germany, rooms are hideous, the music is flat, the waistlines are far too high. And what all the sensory clamor reflects is a world where politics are in turmoil, spirituality is hysterical, and medicine is a crapshoot.

Whether one would actually want to opt out of such a world -- even if one were the real-life poet Heinrich von Kleist, portrayed with supreme self-absorption by Christian Friedel -- seems unlikely, although "Amour Fou" is based on Kleist's real-life suicide and his doomsday relationship with housewife and mother Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink). While Heinrich is an inward-looking egomaniac, Henriette represents for Hausner a woman starved beyond her capacity for intellectual nourishment and as such becomes prey to Kleist's fatal form of romanticism.

Hausner has created, for all her film's downbeat notions, a synthesis of the visual and philosophical that deftly captures an era of uncertainty. The actors -- Schnoeink and Freidel, notably, but also Stephan Crossmann as Henriette's husband, Paraschiva Dragus as their daughter, and even Alissa Wilms as the virtually wordless maid -- are close to perfect. It's easy to see "Amour Fou" -- in which the "fou" (crazy) far outweighs the "amour" (love) -- as a feminist tract; Henriette's hunger for something intellectually exalted is clearly out of sync with her times. But the film is also a comedy of errors: Henriette quite naturally rejects Heinrich's overture of death, until that time when her dizzy spells are diagnosed as a tumor, at which point the offer suddenly looks more attractive. And then Heinrich starts to back away. What Hausner is portraying in the end is the way human events take on their own momentum, independent of either rationality or romance.

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