Archive for Ludwig

Forbidden Divas: All the Way to the Bank

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2018 by dcairns

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 ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

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

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Forbidden Divas: Her Name Was Lola, She Was a Showgirl

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove is back! ~

“I’m not just a revolutionary. I’m a revolutionary who eats chocolates. And that’s very dangerous!” ~ Conchita Montenegro, Lola Montes

The year is 1848; all of Europe is aflame with revolutionary fervour. In Munich, students riot in the streets against the excesses of their monarch, King Ludwig I of Bavaria. (He is the one before the one that Helmut Berger played in the Luchino Visconti film Ludwig (1972). His excesses involve dancing and women, not opera and boys.) As their fury rises to fever pitch, they storm the palace of the king’s mistress – a Spanish dancer of dubious origins whom he has just named Countess of Landsfeld. The lady stands at her window, calmly munching chocolates while shots ring out and bricks and cobble-stones rain in around her. She looks mildly annoyed when one of them shatters a small yet obviously priceless porcelain vase.

Bored by all this hubbub, she flounces across her salon in a gown that resembles a huge undulating tent of black chiffon. Her dark hair is piled elegantly atop her head. Curls trail down strategically on one side, wreathing a face of cool, almost classical beauty – brought to life by large, mischievous yet soulful dark eyes. She arrives at a vast mirror, its frame crawling with fat marble Cupids and gilt seashells. She stares critically at her own reflection and makes some small adjustments to her coiffure. All at once, a brick thrown in from the street hits the mirror, shattering the glass into fragments. The lady does not run or flinch or panic. Calmly, she bends down and selects the largest shard of her broken mirror. Then she holds it up before her face and goes on daintily tidying her hair.

The 1944 Spanish film of Lola Montes may be the greatest camp masterpiece that even Susan Sontag never saw. In her most famous essay, Sontag wrote that “successful Camp, even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love.” This climactic sequence reveals – like the entire oeuvre of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, condensed to a single shot – the way stardom is essentially an act of self-adoration. One very beautiful woman makes love but not to her audience, whom she has never actually met. Nor does she make love to any of her numerous leading men who – in Lola Montes as in most movies of its ilk – are a singularly dull and uninspiring bunch. She makes love always and exclusively to her own sublime image. This may sound ludicrous and excessive and perhaps it is. But it does not seem so when we are watching it. That is because the ‘sublime image’ in this case belongs to Conchita Montenegro.

A star internationally from the late 20s to the mid 40s, Conchita Montenegro was known in the press as ‘the Spanish Garbo.’ She was, perhaps, the one star in film history to make Garbo look like an extrovert. She married and retired from the screen in 1944. Lola Montes, in fact, was her triumphant final film. From then until her death in 2007 at the age of 96, she refused to give interviews or make any public appearance of any sort. In 1994, the film festival at San Sebastian – the city where she was born as Concepción Andrés Picado in 1911 – screened a restored print of La Femme et le Pantin/The Woman and the Puppet (1928), the film that made her famous across Europe and led to a contract with MGM in the early 30s. The festival put on a gala event and invited Conchita Montenegro to attend as guest of honour. The star graciously but firmly refused to show up.

It was said that, after she retired, Conchita Montenegro refused to be photographed even in private – so dismayed was she by the effects of passing time on her exquisite face. Yet there is nothing at all shy or self-effacing in her performance as Lola Montes. She is cast as the notorious dancer, courtesan and (alleged) revolutionary agent who scandalised 19th century Europe with her antics and wound up performing in circus tents in the Wild West. (Her story is told, perhaps a shade more accurately, in the 1955 Max Ophüls film with the same title.) Before she arrives in Bavaria and seduces its king, Lola reigns triumphantly as the toast of Paris – where her suitors include, among others, Franz Liszt. Her every move is shadowed by sinister agents who are using her (without her knowledge) to spark a revolution across Europe. They believe, somewhat quaintly, that the sight of Lola dancing is so inflammatory that it will push the masses into open revolt!

At the peak of her Parisian glory, Lola makes an entrance at a masked ball that is every bit as lavish as anything Ophüls could dream up. Confetti rains down from the ceiling; a throng of extras gambol in Carnival garb. Every statue and candelabrum is draped with paper streamers. Lola’s face is unmasked; one of her shoulders is boldly uncovered. Brilliants glitter in the folds of her gown and the dark luxuriance of her hair. The crowd bursts out in applause as she appears and tosses white roses to her admirers. Standing on the grand staircase, she raises a glass of champagne and drinks their health. The hands that holds the glass is encased, until high up above the elbow, in a glove of gossamer black lace. Her left arm, like her right shoulder, is nude. It is a madly provocative tableau of display and concealment. The star, it seems, gains less power from what she shows than what she does not. Conchita Montenegro is a star who revels in playing a star who revels in…

The director of this gloriously inane farrago was Antonio Román, one of the more skilful of the high-grade hacks who kept Spanish cinema alive after the Civil War. (His daughter was the actress Leticia Román, best known as The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) for Mario Bava.) In her off-screen life, Conchita Montenegro was at the heart of Spain’s new far-right establishment. After a peripatetic film career in Hollywood, Paris, Buenos Aires and Rome – and a brief marriage to a Brazilian tango star, Raoul Roulien – she returned to Spain in 1941 and made a string of movies that can be politely described politely as Fascist propaganda. She became the companion – and, eventually, the wife – of Franco’s chief diplomat, the aristocratic Ricardo Giménez Arnau, who wound up as Spain’s ambassador to the Holy See. (One trusts that Lola Montes was never screened at the Vatican.) Conchita seems to have renounced a life of glamorous depravity to become an upper-class Spanish housewife, just as Lola does in the (wholly fictitious) ending of this film.

Yet fiction, in this case, is hard-pressed to compete with fact. Conchita’s opulent but dull life in 40s Madrid was disturbed – or so rumour has it – by a visit from one of her former lovers, the Hollywood star Leslie Howard. (She played a South Sea island girl and he an American sailor in a musty 1931 melodrama, Never the Twain Shall Meet.) But this time, Howard was on a mission from Winston Churchill, who was desperate to keep Spain from joining the Axis in World War II. He had singled out Conchita (correctly) as the one person who might be able to help. According to an unofficial interview before her death, she used her influence to secure a meeting with Franco. In so doing, she helped to keep Spain neutral throughout the Second World War. If that is so, it was a political coup of which Lola Montes could barely dream.

But the end of the story is not a happy one. With his mission accomplished – and work on Lola Montes drawing to a close – Leslie Howard set out to fly back to London. His plane was shot down in mysterious circumstances over the Bay of Biscay. Conchita was devastated and sank (or so rumour has it) into severe clinical depression. This may explain her abrupt retirement from films and, indeed, her complete withdrawal from public life in the 60 years that followed. Although she is by no means the first star to be forgotten, Conchita Montenegro is perhaps the only star who edited herself systematically out of film history. Apart from La Femme et le Pantin, her films are not revived and only a few people remember her name, even in Spain. She exists – if she exists at all – as a ghost with a ravishing face, glimpsed fleetingly in a shard from a broken mirror.

Perhaps that is how a myth is best remembered?

David Melville