Magazine article Artforum International

Not to Be: James Quandt on Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou

Magazine article Artforum International

Not to Be: James Quandt on Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou

Article excerpt

The tide buries us all in the end. --a Maltese guard, in Jessica Hausner's Lourdes (2009)

ALLES IN ORDNUNG, the German phrase for "everything's okay," implies that all is in order--tidy and organized, in its proper Teutonic place. The young female protagonists of Jessica Hausner's cinema attempt to impose such order on their surroundings, even as murder, mishap, and malady disrupt the strictly regulated Ordnung of their respective settings: a suburban Viennese home ruled by punitive parents (Lovely Rita [2001]); an alpine inn managed by unsmiling taskmasters (Hotel [2004]); a pilgrims' lodge overseen by a stringent nurse (Lourdes); and a pre-Biedermeier household governed by a tax functionary (Amour fou). The eponym of the Austrian auteur's first feature--a rebel called Rita, whose only cause is her own restlessness--responds to the freedom she has won after slaying her mom and dad by holing up in a hotel Zimmer much like the bedroom they had frequently locked her in. Espying a painting that is a little askew, the sullen teen rises from her bed to straighten the tableau, much as she had previously realigned a slightly awry Klimt print at a neighbor's house where she babysits. The heroine of Hotel, a trainee in hospitality, surveys a conference room for readiness, asserting her exactitude by adjusting the angle of a pen lying on the table just so. These punctilious corrections can be read as allegories of Hausner's own precisionist method, in which compositions are storyboarded, edits deliberated, soundscapes highly designed, and details of clothing, locale, and comportment premeditated--an approach one might call, following Robert Bresson's phrase for his own assiduous aesthetic system, "mettre en ordre."

The radiant opening image of Hausner's masterpiece, Amour fou (which premiered at Cannes this past May), also involves a putting in order: Henriette Vogel, her face obscured behind a spray of yellow jonquils, arranges the long-stemmed spring flowers into a formal array. She informs her husband that among the evening's guests will be a famous poet, who, we soon infer, as she expounds upon his tale of a marquise who falls in love with the man who impregnated her while she was unconscious, is none other than Heinrich von Kleist. (Eric Rohmer's film of Kleist's Die Marquise von O [1976] would make for an ideal double bill with Amour fou.) In one of Hausner's trademark symmetries, Henriette will again assemble a bouquet, a little over an hour later in the film--branches bearing red winterberries, suggesting the mortality with which she is now faced, having been diagnosed with an incurable if indeterminate disease. Flowers served as a burgeoning metaphor for the German Romantics--as exemplified by Novalis's blaue Blume--and Hausner knowingly makes them a central motif in her demolition of said Romanticism, from the violet that is ecstatically trampled to death in the Mozart lied performed in the musicale that opens the film to the primroses later invoked in a Beethoven song and the blooms whose fading Henriette confesses to fear while under hypnosis by the mesmerist who attempts to cure her condition. At the moment a soprano gives voice to Mozart's flower merrily perishing under the foot of an obtuse beauty--"And so I die, then let me die for her," she sings--Henriette's gaze meets the persistent perusal of her guest, the rather brazen Kleist, their fates interlocking in that exchange of glances.

Finding life cruel and meaningless--"The world itself troubles my soul," Kleist tells his cousin Marie--the writer has determined to die in a double suicide with a kindred soul who loves him. Having been rebuffed by Marie (and, one infers, several others), the poet, fully in love with easeful Death, settles upon the unsuspecting hausfrau Henriette, pressing his case for a dual demise--he will shoot her first, then himself, he later helpfully explains--a proposal she finds initially absurd, then, after she learns she is about to die anyway, increasingly seductive. …

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