Some might argue that it was born with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but emo — the mentality, the suspended state of inner torment that no one else could ever be capable of understanding — was really invented in 1774 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. That was the year he published The Sorrows of Young Werther, an epistolary novel about an emotional artist who falls so deeply in love with a girl he can never have that he sees no recourse but to take his own life. Werther’s abject misery resonated so deeply with readers in Germany that rates of youth suicide across the nation skyrocketed.
This chronic, Wertherian sort of melancholy drove canonical German writer Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) to form the suicide pact that gives Jessica Hausner’s stubbornly inert new film Amour Fou its only driving motion. He and Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink), the pact’s other signee and the un-bite-able apple of Kleist’s eye, agree to shuffle off their mortal coils together, but Kleist’s the one who really hammers in his general hopelessness. When he meets Vogel, he approaches her as a kindred: “You, too, see the emptiness of all worldly efforts,” he says. And yet he delivers these words flatly, as all characters in this film do with all their words, without even the slightest hint of enflamed sensibilities.
Hausner’s film is defiantly dispassionate, from its unaffected performances down to its rigorously formalist camerawork, which thrills for a few minutes before it clashes terribly with the story at hand. Hausner’s taken a tragedy of fiery emotions and starved it of air by vacuum-sealing it in a museum.
Because there’s a fun German term for everything, the extreme valleys of emotion that Kleist traverses fall into the tradition of sturm und drang, a Rhineland artistic movement meaning “storm and stress” that emphasized free expression of life’s elations and depressions. Once Kleist’s assured that he can no longer take the brutal indignities of love and loss, he can’t stand them one more moment. He’ll take a partner in suicide wherever he can find one; he begs his cousin Marie (Sanda Hüller) to join him in suicide, and she barely maintains a veneer of politeness when demurring. All of Kleist’s dialogue paints him as a man governed by stormy emotions, and yet neither Hausner nor Friedel seem interested in conveying the tempest ostensibly raging within him. Her interests lay elsewhere — to be specific, in the realm of lengthy discursive conversations about levied taxes. The endless tax talk does not make for especially compelling cinema.
There’s no blood pumping through Hausner’s characters’ veins. When Kleist initially pitches Vogel on his offer of suicide, she responds with equal parts hesitation and indifference. By the time she’s diagnosed with incurable cancer of the uterus (an affliction later declared psychosomatic, in a questionably necessary deviation from the truth), her demeanor has been completely taken over by the latter. She behaves like a doll that Hausner can move around and pose as she likes, never convincingly reproducing the mannerisms of a human being, forget one in the throes of ecstasy and agony.
To her credit, Hausner has a talent for elaborate, painterly compositions. Her meticulous shot construction invites comparisons to Wes Anderson, though she executes her camerawork with a classical verve more reminiscent of Vermeer. But she is guilty of many of the criticisms unfairly levied against Anderson and his films. There’s no room for life in her stifling dioramas, only hollow declarations of clearly absent emotion. Perhaps some other critic will understand this film’s warm reception at the Un Certain Regard section of 2014’s Cannes, but this one finds a title that translates back as “crazy love” to possess neither.