Forbidden Divas: All the Way to the Bank

Met up with David Melville Wingrove at Filmhouse yesterday — it was like one of those spy movie handovers of documents — and thus am able to bring you another of his marvelous works ~


All the Way to the Bank


“I don’t worry about the news. I am the news!”

–          Romy Schneider, La Banquière

A late friend who worked in films in the 60s used to grow misty-eyed whenever he spoke of Romy Schneider. “Ah, poor dear Romy,” he would sigh and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. “She was a lesbian, you know.” He made the word sound dangerously exotic and glamorous. He also gave the impression of not being entirely sure what the word meant. My friend is long gone and I have no idea where his story came from. Quite apart from her 25 years of screen stardom, Romy Schneider was famous in the European press for her colourful and rather tortured love life – which may well have included women as well as men. She had a very public affair in the early 60s with Alain Delon and they appeared together (notoriously) as incestuous lovers in Luchino Visconti’s stage production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in Paris in 1961. Her death from suicide in 1982 (following the death of her eldest son) sparked an outburst of public mourning comparable with that of Princess Diana or Eva Perón.

Even in her earliest youth, it was difficult to separate the life of Romy Schneider from the fantasy of her life as it was seen by her adoring fans. From 1954 to 1957, the teenage Austria actress became famous worldwide with a series of four films based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (better known as ‘Sissi’) who was, essentially, the Princess Diana of the 19th century. The films are hideous – stodgy and interminable operettas, minus the songs – but the young Romy gives them a zest that Ernst Marischka’s direction entirely lacks. She became, from that moment, the uncrowned ‘little princess’ of Europe and recreated her role as Sissi in the Luchino Visconti film Ludwig (1972). Her public throughout her life was largely European. Despite – or perhaps because of – her roles in What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) and Bloodline (1979) audiences in Britain and the United States never took to her at all.

From the late 60s, Romy Schneider was based primarily in France. She won the César for Best Actress twice – for Andrzej Zulawski’s L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and Claude Sautet’s Une histoire simple (1978) – and was easily the most famous Austrian to become an honorary Frenchwoman since Marie Antoinette. It goes without saying that Romy was vastly more popular, yet what a lavish and sensational biopic that might have made! The Francis Girod film La Banquière (1980) is not exactly a biopic. It was based loosely on the life of a real-life businesswoman, Marthe Hanau, but the name and most of the details have been fictionalised. It is in no way comparable, on an artistic level, with the work of Zulawski or Sautet. But it is arguably the one film (post-Sissi) that best sums up Romy’s iconic star presence.

Her character in La Banquière is not simply a banker. She is a working-class Jewish left-wing bisexual woman banker. A difficult enough role to pull off at the best of times, but against the politically charged backdrop of France in the 1920s and 30s, even the attempt would seem little short of heroic. Emma Eckhert (as her character is renamed) starts off as a delivery girl at her parents’ hat shop in the years before World War I. She goes to prison at a young age for ‘moral turpitude’ – after she is caught in bed with an aristocratic lady client. Shot in black-and-white, this prologue serves to establish two vitally important facts. Firstly, that this lady has an eye for other ladies. Secondly, that she has a keen and far more discriminating eye for hats. Not since Silvana Mangano in Death in Venice (1971) has any star sported such a dazzling array of headgear as Romy Schneider does here. They are designed by Jean Barthet, who was best known for the Technicolor cartwheels worn by the Deneuve-Dorléac sisters in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). The advantage of his designs for La Banquière is that one may wear them without posing a danger to low-flying aircraft.

Once out of prison (and shot now in radiant colour) Emma wastes no time in getting married to an aristocratic mari complaisant. We assume he must be gay, partly because he seems unfazed by her affairs with other women and partly because he is played by Jean-Claude Brialy, one of the few ‘out’ French actors to survive the unpleasantly macho climate of the New Wave. (With films by Marcel Carné, Jean Cocteau, Marcel L’Herbier and Marc Allégret, among others, the much-ridiculed cinéma de papa of the 40s and 50s was artistically less adventurous, perhaps, but also a good deal gayer!) Emma pours most of her energy into building up a banking empire based on a new and revolutionary concept. At a time when large and established banks dole out a measly 1% in interest, the Eckhert Bank pays investors a whopping 8% on their savings. This involves, inevitably, some reckless high-stakes speculation and some insider trading of frankly dubious legality. Yet its central tenet is that ordinary folk should get a share in the profits of the banks. This was as strange and subversive an idea in 1930 as it is today.

Before long, Emma becomes a heroine to the lower middle classes of provincial France, known and adored universally as ‘Madame 8%’. Refreshingly uninhibited by paltry notions of good taste, she decorates her Christmas tree with giant gilded baubles carved in the figure of 8%. We may take this as a sign that she has, by and large, left her Jewish identity behind her. The ethical issues around casting Schneider as a Jewish woman are multiple and complex. Her mother, the actress Magda Schneider, was an ardent Nazi supporter who took her little girl to play-dates with the children of Doctor Josef Goebbels. Romy – who suffered a degree of guilt over this later in life – worked hard both on-screen and off to distance herself from her mother’s political views. In the last decade of her career, she repeatedly played a woman who suffered due to Nazi atrocities. In Le Train (1972) and La Passante du Sans-Souci (1982) she would play a Jewish refugee. In Le Vieux Fusil (1975) her character is savagely raped and killed by Nazi troops.

Taking on any or all of these roles demanded a moral courage that would make Jane Fonda turn pale. They make doubly distasteful the comments of Dirk Bogarde, who turned down Romy Schneider as his co-star in The Night Porter (1974) on the grounds that: “She would have to play the Nazi and I would have to play the victim.” Her character in La Banquière does not survive to see the Second World War and the role of the French authorities in the Nazi holocaust. An affair with a young left-wing journalist (Daniel Mesguich) leads Madame Eckhert further and further into the progressive and anti-Establishment politics of France in the 1930s. It leads also – in a twist that could only happen in a French film – to an enduring if Platonic friendship with his wife (Marie-France Pisier). Yet it also earns her the enmity of the Big Bad Bankers, led by a malevolently glowering Jean-Louis Trintignant and his bland but insidious boy-toy (Daniel Auteuil) who goes so far as to wear lipstick in his very first scene. These men decide to put a stop to Madame Eckhert and her anarchic business practices. It is a measure of how grim our world is that we never have any serious doubt they will succeed.

The director Francis Girod was and is a sort of Stanley Kramer á la française. His speciality is stolid but star-studded dramas on vaguely controversial themes. La Banquière is not appreciably better or worse than The Infernal Trio (1974) which stars Schneider and Michel Piccoli or René la Canne (1977) which stars Piccoli, Gérard Depardieu and Sylvia Kristel. Yet it is produced with truly eye-watering opulence and who can dislike any film that boasts a full transvestite ladies’ orchestra, kitted out in 18th century frock coats and powdered wigs? Such a film requires an overpowering star presence to sustain it and that is something Romy Schneider has in spades. She is by turns seductive, capricious, ruthless, generous, headstrong, courageous and doomed. You are left wondering why French people do not cut to the chase and appoint Madame Eckhert as President of the Republic for life. Most countries in the 30s could have done a lot worse. In fact, most countries still do.

David Melville

13 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: All the Way to the Bank”

  1. Matthew Davis Says:

    A couple of year ago I thought I’d read Gay Talese. One of his uncollected pieces is an interview for Esquire, November 1963, with the actress Romy Schneider while she was filming Otto Preminger’s “The Cardinal”. Reading the piece on its own it’s just a brief trivial puff piece patronisingly noting her looks, notable only for the odd sequence where Talese adopts a rather big brotherly affect in her bedroom (he was 6 years older than her) – if your big brother is the sort to dance with you and notice you’re bra-less.

    In December 1973 Esquire ran a long profile by Philip Nobile of Talese as he was researching “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” and its effect on his wife Nan. The article discusses Nan’s feelings about Talese have sex with other women and his previous infidelities. It also includes a discussion of Nan visiting Talese on the set of an interview he was conducting. She gradually realised he was having an affair, fearing her marriage of 4-5 years was threatened, and Nobile confirms it. The various details included in the article by Nan/Nobile all tend to correspond with Talese’s profile of Schneider. Whether Nan Talese meant to provide enough clues, or simply thought no one would correlate details it’s far too long ago to tell.

    If it was indeed Romy Schneider then that adds a small amount of salacious media gossip to the story. But there’s still the larger point of journalistic ethics, particularly given the veneration that surrounds Talese in American journalism circles who make so much of journalistic ideals sanctifying the profession.

  2. Thanks for this M. Wingrove. I’ve never seen it and always wanted to — though I’m familiar with the musical score (by my favorite Tarantino-disser) In yje U.S. they tried to sell Romy the way they did Sophia Loren and Virna Lisi (who was sensational in “How To Murder Your Wife.”) But “Good Neighbor Sam” — which I very much enjoyed _- didn’t click with the masses. A key to Romy’s allure is the film she was working on before — Clouzot’s abandoned “L’Enfer.” A few years back a film was made out of what was shot of this disaster, and it was lot more interesting than “The Other Side of the Wind”

    My favorite Romy performance is “The Job” — Visconti’s segment of “Bocaccio ’70”

  3. Oh Hell. The whole thing used to be available. Well here’s a clip with music by somebody or other.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    The Clouzot film of L’ENFER does indeed look splendid. It may be unfinished…but I would say it’s better than most movies that exist in their entirety!

  5. No wonder Clouzot had a heart attack making it.

    Schneider seems to have been almost compulsively promiscuous, maybe part of her self-destructive side. I wondered if her movie choices were a deliberate attempt to destroy her Sissi image, which Europeans wouldn’t allow her to forget. But the dark and twisted movie roles, with their envelope-pushing sexuality, may have been part of her death-drive too.

  6. I’m still traumatised by Le vieux fusil, which I trotted along to see in Japan in 1979 under the mistaken impression it was some sort of nostalgic Pagnol-fest (this was way before you could look things up on imdb or wikipedia, of course). Reportedly the horrible realism of Schneider’s performance traumatised many of the crew as well.

  7. I would say “I wouldn’t want to see that one unprepared” except that there’s no way to prepare for it.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    I was frankly repelled by LE VIEUX FUSIL, which I found voyeuristic and nasty in the extreme. It did, however, win the first-ever Cesar for Best Film in 1975. Next time somebody tells you the French have better taste than we do…just remember that.

  9. I found it horrible, but not gloating. I’m suspicious of filmmakers who set out to appall us but at least I didn’t feel I was being invited to enjoy myself.

  10. I was mildly amused/appalled to see a rip-off of the final flamethrower/mirror scene a few years ago in Tarsem Singh’s naff SF bodyswap pic Self/Less (Ben Kingsley transfers his consciousness into Ryan Reynolds. As you do.)

  11. Jeez. There’s somebody who had promise but keeps getting worse. He should do a compendium film with Alex Proyas and Vincent Ward.

  12. David Wingrove Says:

    For me Tarsem Singh films get by largely if not entirely on their visual style. You may or may not like what you are seeing…but at least you know you are seeing something.

    That being said, I haven’t seen SELF/LESS. Is it as awful as I’ve heard?

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