Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Amour Fou - A tale of wallpapers and awkwardness

It all comes back to the wallpaper, one of cinema's most memorable in this vein since Barton Fink. The chequered hangings with some sort of floral pattern attract the audience's gaze time and time again during Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou, which screened as part of the Cine-City film festival last week. In 1811 Berlin, towards the end of feudalism, they decorate the masonry of the living room in the aristocratic Vogel residence, where a large portion of the film takes place. The frames take on a painterly order facing the wall, meaning that it becomes a constant, looming backdrop to the drama that unfolds in front of it.

There we see Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), the lady of the house, happily married and mother of a daughter. She attracts the attention of a visiting poet named Heinrich (Christian Friedel, whom you might recognise as the school teacher from The White Ribbon). He is committed to a morbidly romantic outlook on the world and is desperate to find a woman to join him in the ultimate act of love: joint-suicide. Initially Henriette rejects his advances, but when she is diagnosed with a fatal illness, she begins to show interest in becoming the Juliet to Heinrich's Romeo.

The performances are intentionally awkward, which may be slightly irritating for some viewers. The actors' posture is formal and rigid, and they often look like they are as confused about what to do with their hands as Jack Donaghy does in the famous 30 Rock-episode. It's as if they are posing for a painting rather than camera, embodying the stiffness that entraps German aristocracy, trapped in conventions like puppets on a string. Heinrich's awkwardness meanwhile is merely a charade to fit into society until he can exit it with a bang.

In the end it all comes down to the infamous wallpaper. Hausner uses background to express the emotions bubbling under the surface of the foreground in a quite interesting way. The lighting gives the wallpaper different nuances in the various scenes. At times it shimmers in a cold, blue-ish tone, while emitting a hopeful green at others. Any escape from this claustrophobic setting has furthermore an exhilarating effect on the viewer. It takes almost half an hour until we first leave the domestic setting (we don't even see a window up to that point), so it feels like a breath of fresh air.

Not everybody will enjoy staring at a wall for an hour and a half while a relatively unengaging, sometimes alienating story is plaid out in front of it. Amour Fou is in many ways a dragging, tiresome experience, but the director's use of the mise-en-scène just about managed to keep me interested for 96 minutes. The Austro-Luxembourgish-German co-production explores a number of interesting ideas and concepts, but the audience has to work hard to find them in the wallpaper's hypnotic pattern.

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