Interview: Jessica Hausner on new film ‘Amour Fou’

With the release of her fourth feature film in 13 years Jessica Hausner continues the current flow of quietly antagonistic Austrian auteurs speaking truth against the powerful constructs of a bourgeois society that eats its own for sport and pleasure. After the success of 2009’s Lourdes she returns with Amour Fou (2014), a look at the death and suicide pact of romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist and his cousin Marie. The film was a much sought after pleasure via word of mouth after it premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Bizarrely, in the catalogue, the log line for the film referred to it as a ‘romantic comedy’. This mischievous labelling seemed a perfect entry point when we had the chance to sit down to talk to Hausner in London late last year.

So, is Amour Fou really a ‘romantic comedy’? Is that how she’s it? A rye smile precedes her response. “To say that the film is a ‘romantic comedy’ is ironic – as it’s not. We chose this log line to say that it is not a tragedy about suicide, it is something apart from those things. It’s not a comedy or a tragedy.” The original idea from which the film sprang was about a double suicide for love, which presumably raised interesting questions about how the dual ideas of love and suicide co-exist. “I originally didn’t know, I had to find out. When I started to do research and to develop some stories I was fascinated in the absurdity that these people love each other and their love is difficult or is rejected by society. Surely they must know that this is going to separate them forever. So I thought: how is this possible? How can people make such a decision that is so absurd. Then I discovered the story about this poet: Heinrich von Kleist. In his biography I found some of those absurd details which helped me to find the tone of the film. There was a strange sort of humour which fits in with the absurdity of the storytelling.”

The aforementioned von Kleist as being both banal and ridiculous; it is a bold move to portray such an icon of German literature in this fashion. “Well when we did the casting it was very interesting because most of the actors tried to be very genius poets but I was not looking for this interpretation, I was looking for a very human interpretation. You say banal or ridiculous, I would say human. That is what humans are like, and I say that in a warm and loving way.” She emphasises that “the personality of Heinrich von Kleist is very much one of a human and that is what I wanted to show. I wanted to show he was not just an icon but also his ridiculousness.” Hausner pauses when the subject is raised about the claims from some quarters that von Leist was mentally ill.

“I am interested in what is called mental illness and that changes throughout the ages. So we have to look at that time of the film. Would they call him mentally ill? Our society today probably would but then they wouldn’t. I do not use that label very often but I wouldn’t use it for Kleist.” Well what about Henriette Vogel? Does she make that final decision out of fear, love or boredom? “The problem is she doesn’t make the final decision. The real tragedy is that she is not able to say what she really wants. She is about to and then he shoots her. Whatever she wanted to say it becomes too late. That is the real problem of her existence. The one time when she does say something is when under hypnosis she says the flowers scare her. That is something very true she says about herself but she is not aware of this.” Contemporary resonance appears to be an important topic to take away from the film and Hausner becomes quite animated when the subject is broached. “This idea that you live a life that is not your own life, this comes from vanity and is true today.”

“When you think you love someone it’s much more about yourself what you wish to see in someone and what you are looking. This romantic ideal of love is not very truthful. Human beings lie a lot and they don’t say what they think. In a relationship between two people there are a lot of lies and untruthfulness. Maybe this is something I wanted to show: the lie of romantic love.” She speaks with a finality that echoes her film. “That is why it is so important for me not to have Henriette be a victim. In the beginning she says, ‘no, why should I die with him?’ but then when she is going to die anyway he becomes interesting for her.” The conversation soon swings back to the notions of suicide and Hausner explains why the questions of whether it is a rational or selfish act are unsuitable to her aims and objectives as a filmmaker, “I think that is difficult to say. At some points when I was writing the film and later when working with the actors the question would come up why would Heinrich want to kill himself? I have to admit the suicide in this film is not dealt with as a psychological question. It’s the pretext to have an investigation into a strange version of love and expectation that sits outside normal societal norms. It’s also about an inversion of the things you think you know very well. I think suicide is a very rightful act and I would never reproach anyone who did it.”

D.W. Mault | @D_W_Mault

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