Two Early Films by Jessica Hausner: Lovely Rita (2001) and Hotel (2004)

I’m building up to another entry of my Global Cinema series on Saturday, one which focuses on Austria, and so I’m doing a themed week around German-language films directed by women. One of my favourite Austrian filmmakers has been Jessica Hausner, who probably had her breakthrough with her third feature-length film, Lourdes (2009), a film about a young woman with MS in search of a miracle in the pilgrimage site of the title, and one I saw when it came out in cinemas. However, it was her follow-up Amour Fou (2014) which really captured my attention. I think her most recent film, the English-language Little Joe (2019) which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival, is probably a little underrated as a result of the language, but it maintains a really consistently creepy tone, which her first two films indicate is something she has always been skilful at.


It’s interesting, after seeing Hausner’s later films, to watch her feature debut and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case.

Hausner’s second feature, Hotel (2004), manages to sustain — without anything graphic happening — a creepy atmosphere of dark portent, although the remote hotel setting helps with that, as does the largely still camerawork. Shots recede into darkness and corridors lead out of sight as our heroine is frequently seen disappearing into the frame (somewhat as the poster suggests). It’s all very studied, but it does work quite effectively.

Lovely Rita film posterLovely Rita [classification 15]
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Barbara Osika, Christoph Bauer; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 16 May 2016.

Hotel film posterHotel (2004) [classification 12]
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Franziska Weisz, Birgit Minichmayr; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 July 2016.

Amour Fou (2014)

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.

Amour Fou film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 February 2015.