This Austrian film, set in the early-19th century, is a curious one. It unfolds in a very deliberately paced way, with a series of largely unmoving tableaux compositions with centred groupings of actors, brightly lit in brightly coloured, meticulously tidy rooms. The line delivery resists any overt melodrama while the actors tend to remain still in the centre of the frame, so outwardly this all suggests the formal rigour of, say, a Straub/Huillet film. One might easily assume that nothing happens — as a story about a real life love affair with a tragic denouement, there’s very little of the kind of hand-wringing content you might expect. (I’d go so far as to say this represents some canny anti-Valentine’s Day programming, coming out so soon before that particular festival.) But between the married Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink) and the doomy romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), the film conveys plenty of emotion, through its focus on the minutiae of the exchanges between them. Meanwhile there are vast changes taking place in the very social fabric of everyday existence, as the effects of the French Revolution filter through, and Henriette’s husband is tasked with levying taxes on the now newly-emancipated populace of the Austrian empire (much to the chagrin of the aristocracy, one of whom is seen bewailing this invidious novelty). What particularly sets the film apart, though, is its wry take on the figure of Kleist, a self-involved fantasist so wrapped up in his own death-fixated romantic ideals that he seems uncomprehending that the women he meets should not want to join him in death’s loving embrace. He’s a figure more of laughable pretension, and it’s Henriette who seems the more clear-minded despite her terminal diagnosis. As a period costume drama, it certainly bucks the usual dramatic signifiers, but emerges no less clear-sighted for all that.
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 February 2015.