Austrian director Jessica Hausner has courted the admiration of the European arthouse ever since her 1995 short film, Flora, won the Léopard de Demain award for Best International Short Film at the 1996 Locarno Festival. Since then she has had three films nominated for the Cannes Un Certain Regard award and has had similar success at Venice, where Lourdes (2009) won four separate awards, including the FIPRESCI Prize, and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
Hausner’s talent was recognised early; Flora and Inter-View (1999) were both made while she studied at Vienna’s Filmacademy and it was only two years later that Lovely Rita (2001) was nominated for the Cannes Un Certain Regard award. She has cited Jacques Tati and Akira Kurosawa as influences but it is fair to say that Hausner has begun to establish a unique style of her own. Her films are rigorously precise in almost every detail. With her latest film, Amour Fou (2014), a morbid period romance based on the lives and double-suicide of a 19th century poet and his lover, it feels like there is no wasted effort. The sets are dressed sparsely but with the utmost exactitude; it feels like every object, every candlestick and painting, is placed with purpose and as a result many of the scenes themselves resemble Romantic portraits. This attention to detail extends to the way the characters dress, it’s in their manner, their spiritual and moral outlook, and is itself a result of rigorous period research.
This all contributes to a very serene style that never overstates the tensions running through Jessica Hausner’s stories. In Lourdes, perhaps the director’s most critically successful film to date, a miracle occurs, but it isn’t announced with a chorus and a ray of sunlight, but merely by the smallest, most transformative movement of its beneficiary. Despite the grand themes – love, death and vulnerability, say – these stories are rooted to their people. Hausner’s camera often remains static, leaving the characters to fill the space around them. The opening shot of Lourdes, in which a group of people gradually file into a dining room for breakfast, is a striking example of this. The camera never shifts its focus as the diners take their seats, yet with one subtle zoom towards the end of the shot it becomes clear that the gaze has been fixed on the film’s protagonist, Christine (Sylvie Testud), all along. It is un-showy yet admirable cinema, an apt summary of all of Jessica Hausner’s work and her method of creating it.
Amour Fou (2014) – Five years after Lourdes Jessica Hausner returned with an intricately composed period drama that sends up the traditional fluttering romances of the genre with the wryest humour. Based on the suicides of the Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel, Amour Fou is shot with a sparseness that echoes the nihilistic souls of its subjects. The sets are bare yet precisely dressed and the figures that populate them immaculately presented; visually, it is spectacular in its restraint.
Lourdes (2009) – A group pilgrimage to the holy site of Lourdes turns into a gossipy, spiteful drama when one of the women appears to be miraculously cured of her multiple sclerosis. Opening with a wonderfully composed shot of the pilgrims as they gradually fill a dining room for breakfast, the film is placid in its execution but asks interesting questions about the nature of faith and healing and the subjectivity of a god’s mercy. Starring Léa Seydoux before she rose to stardom through Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and Spectre (2015), Lourdes is a warm and wonderfully acted film.
If you’re a fan…
Lovely Rita (2001) – Jessica Hausner worked with non-professional actors in this, her feature debut, which casts a look at the mundanity of middle-class Austrian life from the perspective of a quiet yet rebellious teenage girl. The film’s initial calmness is characteristic of the director’s later work yet here it segues into a rather startling end that divided opinion upon its initial release. Regardless, it proved to be striking enough to warrant screening in competition at Cannes, providing some deserved exposure to one of Europe’s most exciting directors.
And the rest
Flora (short film) (1995)
Years active: 1995-present
Accolades: Cannes Un Certain Regard nominee (3x), Venice FIPRESCI Prize winner, Venice Golden Lion nominee