Romy Schneider: Empress of the Screen
Published on May 18th, 2012 | by Michael Rawls0
The Austrian-born actress Romy Schneider (1938-1982) made her film debut at the age of fifteen. Two years later she became a star in her native country by appearing as the beloved Austrian Empress Elizabeth in the first film of the so-called “Sissi” trilogy, none of which I’ve seen but, going by reports, would seem to be the celluloid equivalent of a fifteen-pound box of marzipan.
Schneider somehow climbed out of said box and over a film career of just under thirty years played opposite such actors as Michel Piccoli, Yves Montand, Jack Lemmon, Tom Courtenay, Klaus Kinski, Alain Delon, Phillippe Noiret, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Peter O’Toole, and Peeping Tom/Grimm brother Karlheinz Bohm. She was directed at one time or another by Luchino Visconti, Joseph Losey, Orson Welles, Jules Dassin, Bertrand Tavernier, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Claude Miller, Claude Sautet, Claude Chabrol. She was originally supposed to play Maria Braun in the first of RW “Mr. Congeniality” Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy, but they didn’t quite hit it off (“Dumb cow,” Rainer said of Romy. “A beast,” Romy said, more justifiably, of Rainer). So Hanna was recalled from exile, briefly.
Schneider acted in German, French, and English, and in the mid-sixties her career was largely in American and British films. She won the César Award for best actress twice. The French film industry award for most promising young actress is named after Schneider. Unfortunately, her personal life had enough in the way of emotional baggage (overly affectionate stepfather, first husband dead by suicide, fourteen-year-old son dead by accidental impalement on fence in front of family home) to break, and stop, her heart by the age of forty-three. And the toll of this damage was easily readable on her face years earlier. Compare the youthful sparkler in the early scenes of “Le combat dans l’île” (1962) to the perpetually martyred, recently widowed, terminally diagnosed, premature matron (not necessarily all in the same picture) she portrayed in most of the films of her last decade.
“Les choses de la vie,” which was shown by the FIAF on May 8 (yes, I know, I missed my deadline. “Je regrette,” as Alain said to Romy) was the film that made Romy Schneider a star (finally) in France.
Up until the success of this film, she had enjoyed more recognition in American films than in Gallic ones, in spite of having been given a leg up, so to speak, in French mass media attention by her lengthy affair with Alain Delon. “Les choses” also resurrected the some-years moribund directorial career of Claude Sautet. The film even inspired a pop song (well covered by American chanteuse Karen Akers) “L’annee ou Piccoli,” about a love affair that dies the same summer that Piccoli is packing the French hardtops with his spectacularly choreographed Alfa Romeo exit ( I don’t think I’m giving anything away here), months in preparation, ten days in the shooting. Taking into account all of the above, I still find the commercial and critical success of this film inexplicable. Unless the accident itself is the explanation, as in the American cop movie “The Seven-Ups” with its “Better than Bullitt” advertised chase). And the chase part was better. But that was it.
For much of the duration of “Les choses,” I felt as if I were watching a series of meticulously produced commercials, one for the upper-middle-class artistic lifestyle (Piccoli is an architect and his lover Schneider a writer, never photographed in an unattractive setting), another for the integrity of the artist (“No car parks in my apartment complex” shouts idealist Piccoli to the coarse moneybags who has staked the construction of his grand design.”The gardens are a cornerstone, etc.” followed by a Roarkian threat to blow up the lot if any besmirching appurtenances are added), yet another for the agony of a deeply talented sensitive man torn between two beautiful, sensitive, loving women, one his ex-wife, one his mistress, and damned if the ex-wife doesn’t have custody of the beautiful island home!
But all of this sensitivity, intelligence, and talent must be taken on faith, for all of the principals have about as much depth as the objects (cars, tables, island homes) with which they are besotted. It’s all a sort of Harlequin Romance played out in an Elle Decor setting. The automobile accident is indeed quite a set-piece but choreographed in such a way as to make one react as one would to a Busby Berkeley number or a fireworks display. Any empathy with the human in the process of losing his life is lost in open-mouthed admiration of an absolutely wonderful smash-up, with which the creators themselves are so impressed that we are shown the same accident in accelerated, slow, and normal speeds. And behind the credits. And fragments flashed by periodically throughout the film. At this point, the movie’s not far from being the middlebrow equivalent of a Monster Truck rally in a mud bog.
I’m sorry to say that neither Schneider nor Piccoli nor the lovely Lea Massari (the ex-wife here, she was the lost Anna in “L’Avventura” and the obliging mom in “Murmur of the Heart”) add any flesh to these stick figures. And the moral of this whole near unendurable farrago, in an epiphany with which Piccoli is visited just before his, and our, release, is that you should try to appreciate the little things in life. Yes, as Mac Davis sang, Stop and Smell the Roses. C’est ça.
One aspect of the film which I found funny on my first viewing back in the late 1980s was the fetishization of the cigarette. Lighting, offering, consuming. No conversation, even between father and teenage son, is possible without a Harry Rag.
The upper atmosphere of the rather fancy restaurant in which Schneider and Piccoli have a lovers’ quarrel is as beclouded as the Baskerville Moors, as befogged as a 1950s TV studio in which Mike Wallace is hard-hittingly interviewing Rod Serling (“So, Rod, they say you’ve sold out…”). Now this amusement is somewhat tempered by nostalgia for the Pre-Fascist Nanny Era. No Smoking, No Salt. No Trans-Fats. All wholesome all healthy all the time.
”The Grilling” (“Garde à vue” on its original American release, with the parenthetical translation “Under Suspicion” appended), showing May 22nd, features one of Schneider’s last roles, a supporting one in which she’s good but in which she’s not really required to do much more than register suspicion and resentment of her high-powered, beautifully dressed and spoken attorney husband Michel Serrault, who is suspected of being a serial child rapist/murderer. Serrault manages to simultaneously convey righteous indignation for being treated as guilty purely on presumption while conveying that there’s something genuinely nasty about this character somewhere, the exact nature of that nastiness not becoming clear until virtually the very last second of the film. Almost the entire movie is a three-hander with suspect Serrault, Inspector-on-the-case Lino Ventura, and Ventura’s comic brute of an underling Guy Marchand (Marchand was the abandoned husband in “Cousin, Cousine.” He can also be seen as the abandoned husband in “Loulou.” Another notable performance was as the abandoned husband in “Entre Nous.”) As John Simon noted at that glorious time, all three of these main actors are “superb, but Serrault is miraculous.” Anyone who’s seen Serrault in “Mortelle randonnée” or “Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud” or “On ne meurt que deux fois” knows just how wonderful he can be, and this performance is one of his best. I think this is also one of the best, and least exposed, films of the late Claude Miller. It’s not really a showcase for Romy Schneider, but be grateful that you have a chance to see it.
“Clouzot’s Inferno,” showing May 29, is a sterling demonstration of fanatical preparation as a cover for creative impotence and a lack of confidence. Reproved by the New Wave for the over-preparedness, the lack of room to breathe, in his films, Clouzot responded that he did his improvisation on paper. Yes, it’s less messy that way, but there is something suffocating about not allowing what might be contributed by how the actors respond to one another on set or how they might react to some bit of spontaneity introduced by the location. In the case of his never-completed film “Inferno,” Clouzot was trying to present himself as “with it” (nudity, op-art visuals, aural hallucinations) while at the same time locking a death grip on the storyboards and detailed scripting which had led to him being relegated to the ossuary in the first place. By “detailed,” I mean knowing how far up the figure of every single actor in a shot will intrude in the frame, this by means of a set of storyboard transparencies reminiscent of the anatomy sections in old encyclopedias which enabled you to lay in as many internal organs as you wished. Three (3!) complete camera crews in three different parts of town all ready to go when the breath of the Muse happened to blow Henri-Georges their way. But come evening, H-G would still be doing Shot #1 with Crew #1 over and over and over. Some of the visuals are certainly striking (topless Romy tied to railroad track, Romy skiing on red lake, necessitating Romy being painted grey-green for filter effect which made lake red), some seem cribbed from “Vertigo.” The aural hallucinations are so over-prepared and overt in their sexual symbolism that they fail to convey the insane jealousy of the lead character, although you might be able to use them at the commitment hearings for the writer/director.
Serge Reggiani, the lead actor, quit before Clouzot could run him into a nervous breakdown. And I mean “run” literally. An unsuccessful attempt was made to replace Reggiani with Jean-Louis Trintignant. Shooting continued for several days with no male lead until Clouzot finally succeeded in driving himself into a heart attack, thus bringing deliverance to… but you must see all this for yourself. In the midst of all this fanatically organized chaos, Schneider appears quite cheerful, game for anything, whether being Kermitized or having a locomotive bearing down on her bristols.
Following “The Hell of Henri-Georges Clouzot,” on June 5 we have Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine” (“The Swimming Pool”). This film was shot in both French and English versions with the bilingual cast. Mercifully, the FIAF is showing the French version. The English version is a must to avoid, with the dialogue sounding almost as canned and unnatural as the English-dubbed soundtrack to “Hercules Unchained” (“I shall bite where your lips have touched,” as Steve Reeves said to Sylva Koscina). Schneider’s English is excellent, Delon’s not quite as good but charming (“Whair the ‘ell is ‘arry?”) and Ronet’s at times unintelligible (Ronet was originally supposed to play Ali in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but his difficulties with English led to his dialogue coach, one Omar Sharif, ending up getting the part. You can hear why here). The French version is no end superior.
Schneider and Delon are established (two years) lovers taking a month-long vacation at a lent (nice to have friends who have nice things) villa near St. Tropez. The relationship seems satisfactory sensually but Delon’s character is troubling from the beginning. A failed novelist now making a living in advertising, he seems completely lacking in motivation to do anything other than laze by the pool fiddling about with Romy. This idyll is disturbed by the reappearance of Romy’s former lover and Delon’s old friend Arry, sorry, Harry (Maurice Ronet) a successful something to do with music (composer? producer? saxophonist? It’s not clear), who’s as energetic and as highly motivated as Delon isn’t. He’s a sort of PBS motivational clown (“Be like me! Don’t try to change the world! Change your goals!”) who I, for one, could not wait to see get what’s coming to him. He’s accompanied by his daughter (Jane Birkin) by an Englishwoman from whom he’s now estranged. Since Delon’s entire delusionary sense of worth is built on Schneider’s regard for him, he’s naturally upset with anyone who would dare to divert her attention. It’s difficult to tell whether Schneider is winding Delon up, as the Brits say, or whether she’s just showing an old friend/lover the consideration he deserves. But when Delon’s jealousy becomes obvious, Schneider most assuredly sets out to exacerbate it. So to get even, Delon moves in on the soon to be no longer virginal daughter (“That first swim really takes it out of you”). Schneider is excellent as an intelligent beautiful woman tied to an essentially worthless man. In her earlier scenes, she radiates sex like an oven. As for Delon, playing attractive rotters seems to come quite easily to him. Birkin’s own youth, awkwardness of deportment, and painfully British-accented French are ideal for the part she’s playing. And one longs to follow those seemingly interminable legs to their terminus. Ronet is good, but he has obviously already embarked on drinking his looks and career away.
“The Swimming Pool” was a big success, helped by the public’s desire to see the former “fiancés of Europe” (Delon and Schneider) reunited on screen. Another bit of luck was Delon’s chauffeur, who was known for having underworld associations round Riviera way, being found stuffed in a garbage can. Yeah, dead. This led to Delon being picked up, questioned, and released by the police, all this fuss going a long way towards enhancing his tough guy reputation and mitigating the questions about his masculinity engendered, so to speak, by his pretty boy looks. Nothing says “macho” like having a business associate binned. Deray later directed Delon in the highly enjoyable Bogart/Cagney comic gangster pastiche “Borsalino,” another French film which enjoyed a reasonably wide American theatrical release at the time and which has dropped off the face of the English speaking world.
I shall have more to say about Romy Schneider’s later phase, along with remarks about some titles not included in the FIAF program in Part Two of this article.