Archive for Romy Schneider

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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Otto Complete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting an old favourite — it’s Otto Preminger Week, Slight Reprise.

I think it was Guy Budziak who sent me a DVD of Otto Preminger’s THE CARDINAL some years back — thanks, Guy! — I immediately watched and drooled over the magnificent Saul Bass title sequence, then put it away, meaning to watch the rest later. Having finally done so, the main benefit received is probably that it got me to finally start reading Chris Fujiwara’s Preminger study, The World and His Double. The movie does embody a lot of the positive AND negative things about the Preminger style and personality.

Fujiwara cites plenty of testimony from concerned parties that Preminger mercilessly mistreated his leading man, Tom Tryon, eventually driving him to quit acting altogether. (Preminger felt Tryon should thank him for his subsequent successful career as a novelist.) Tryon’s own account is harrowing and heartbreaking — but I’m surprised that co-star John Huston’s version isn’t included. Huston claims he noticed Tryon was looking nervous and suggested that Otto might try soothing his star rather than berating him. Otto approached the trembling thespian from behind and bellowed “RELAAAAX!” in his ear.

It probably isn’t true, but poetically it is clearly COMPLETELY true.

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The perfect match of pillars and font (typographic, not baptismal)

The film also got me looking up Catholic history to see if the movie was fair and accurate. It’s not too shabby. Preminger apparently added all the stuff about the Austrian Anschluss, which the source novel didn’t deal with. The film shows faithfully how the church in Austria initially welcomed Nazi annexation, only turning against it when the Nazis started repressive measures against Catholics. But the movie can’t find room to show how Pope Pius XII pursued policies of appeasement and neutrality, decrying war crimes in generic terms while refusing to be specific. However, we do get to see some prime chickenshit religiose humbug in a sequence dealing with segregation in Georgia. When Ossie Davis comes to Rome to report his church being burned by the clan, the Italian cardinal berates him for his inflammatory behaviour in protesting that a Catholic school wouldn’t teach black children.

The fact that Tryon’s character stays with the church after this almost makes him a difficult character to respect, although in fairness he travels to Georgia and tries to help out. His biggest problem as a lead character is that he allows his sister to die — she’s pregnant, the doctor needs to sacrifice the baby’s life to save her, and Tryon refuses. Even Preminger knew this was a character flaw: whatever the law of the church says, as fellow humans in the audience we demand that Tryon’s character save his sister. No movie star could really play that part — the kind of characters movie stars play would somehow resolve things — or God would help out with a miracle and the sister would live.

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Tryon flanked by Lynley Mk II (right) and Dorothy Gish (left).

In a really creepy piece of filmmaking, Preminger casts the same actress, the lovely Carol Lynley, as both sister and grown-up niece (the movie’s story covers decades, and it seems like it too). It’s as if an act of cinematic metempsychosis has resulted in the mother literally living on in her daughter, so that the priest’s act of murder is erased. As Fujiwara observes, Preminger directs this sequence with so little conviction that the apparent intended meaning is substantially undercut.

Weirdness alternates with dullness. For the first twenty minutes, the script (Robert Dozier plus uncredited Gore Vidal and Ring Lardner — neither of whom knew the other was at work on the same project until a chance meeting exposed the farce) is content to offer no actual drama at all, just uncomfortable actors exchanging information, plus bits of ritual and music and nice location shooting. Then Cecil Kellaway brings in a little conflict, playing an avuncular rotter in a dog collar, whose sins are so petty, venial and squalid that it’s surprising Otto got the OK from the church, especially after his rows with the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD, I call them) on previous movies.

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And then we get John Huston, and things get MUCH better. Also Burgess Meredith, at whose deathbed Huston has a moment that actually really moved me — not an emotion I expected to get from a Huston performance, though I often enjoy him.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who restrains his usual Deluxe Color glorious excesses, was apparently quite smitten with Romy Schneider… one can well believe it.

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The movie was make-up supremo Dick Smith’s first credit, and he had to age Tryon throughout the movie. He was apparently a last-minute replacement for the great Maurice Seiderman (CITIZEN KANE), who quarrelled with Preminger and, as a parting gesture, ran his electric razor in a line right up the back of Tryon’s head. Poor Tryon, he got the worst of every encounter. Poor Smith, he had to spend months gluing little bits of hair to the back of Tryon’s scalp.

Fujiwara is probably right to regard this as major Preminger, but he does note the difficulties it presents — Tom Tryon is sort of right for it, but does not provide a strong centre.

Dwight MacDonald wrote of Preminger, “A great showman who has never bothered to learn anything about making a movie,” which is totally off-base. But he added, hilariously, “… no one is more skilled at giving the appearance of dealing with large, controversial themes in a bold way, without making the tactical error of doing so.” In a sense, he has Preminger cold, but a more sympathetic reading — that the former lawyer was always inclined to view a problem from both sides, if at all possible — is equally valid. When dramatic weakness or oppressive censorship impacts on this approach, the result can be dullness, as in several long sequences of THE CARDINAL. When Preminger is able to pilot a strong script through the cultural hazards, the results are striking.

French Farce

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2014 by dcairns

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Things done –

Pere Lachaise Cemetery – people kept asking me if I knew where Jim Morrison was, but I was avoiding him. Also Edith Piaf. The only famous person I met was Ticky Holgado, whose terrifying sepulchre, depicted above, evokes the awe and horror of death better than any of the more tasteful tombs.

Charcuterie. With two ex-students: one is working as a nanny and being bitten all over by small children while pursuing her documentary career, the other was attending a fantastique film fest (but they weren’t showing LET US PREY so I’m safe).

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Coffee at the Hotel du Nord, from the film of the same name, avec Phoebe Green, who sometimes appears in these pages as La Faustin, and who was our translator on NATAN. You can’t get a view of the hotel through the bridge as Marcel Carne manages in his film — having rebuilt the whole neighbourhood in the studio he could shuffle things around, lose a few trees, and arrange things to the camera’s advantage.

Lunch at the Cinematheque – boeuf bourgignon where I bought many postcards, also some awesome KING KONG flipbooks. It’s quite something to have Kong waving his arms about in the palm of your hand.

There’s a lovely Truffaut exhibition on just now, with letters and photos and other souvenirs – not the Jeanne Moreau letters, she’s sitting on those – and it was a chance to nod sadly at the image of Marie Dubois, one of our recent departures for realms unknown. Truffaut ought to feature in the Late Movies Blogathon, come to think of it – I have a soft spot for VIVEMENT DIMANCHE! And THE GREEN ROOM is one of the most apt late films of all.

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Truffaut’s boyhood notebook — LE CORBEAU, he recorded later, was the first film he saw twice. But what caught my eye, of course, was the Pathe-Natan LE MISERABLES, which must have been on its post-war re-release, hopefully with the Jewish names restored to the credits which were removed under the Nazis.

St. Sulpice, a large church featuring some impenetrably dark works by Delacroix.

Many many bookshops, where my inability to read French prevented me from making many an extravagant purchase, like the giant book of stereoscopic images of diabolical tableaux – little dioramas with miniature imps and demons frozen in the act of cavorting with pitchforks and other accoutrements — co-authored by Brian May of Queen. The kind of book one SHOULD own. But I couldn’t walk away from the little pamphlet by Samson Raphaelson, his memoir of working with Lubitsch. It was only four euros, and reading the first few sentences I was pleased to discover that my schoolboy French did not leave me wholly in the dark. Actually, I need to modify the expression “schoolboy French” lest I be seen to traduce the educational system. Some qualifier like “concussed schoolboy French” or “sleeping schoolboy French” gives you a better idea.

Now, since I need to see a movie, obviously, and I need a movie I have a chance of understanding, preferably, I have been drawn to the Cinema Desperado, whose Romy Schneider season is featuring WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT. I’ve never actually seen the whole thing. TV versions were always pan-and-scanned and just TOO SMALL to allow Richard Williams’ elaborate titles to be enjoyed… the documentary series Hollywood UK more or less accused this film of ruining British cinema, since it led to the excesses of CASINO ROYALE and the belief that throwing enough gaily coloured, fashionable shit at the screen would be enough to attract and keep an audience. And I have a complex, mostly abusive relationship with the works of Clive Donner, though it’s never been entirely clear whether it’s abusing me or I’m abusing it. Here goes nothing…

(Typed at 17:41 in a café with no internet.)

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Later – well that was highly enjoyable. Can’t remember the last 35mm projection I saw – probably THE BOFORS GUN at EIFF. The cinema belongs to Jean-Pierre Mocky and shows all his films, a different one every day.

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The film is a hot mess, as expected, but there are very funny, silly bits, and some clever bits too. The editing is all over the place – continuity is appalling, but that is sometimes evidence of a cutter following the rhythms, or creating them, and saying the hell with making stuff match. But there are clear signs of whole sequences having been moved about on a whim (probably that of increasingly erratic producer Charles K. Feldman), characters show up out of the blue (not Ursula Andress, who does so literally, as a deliberate gag, but people like the bomb-throwing anarchist, who the script must have intended to set up earlier as Paula Prentiss’s boyfriend), and Paula Prentiss’s early scenes appear to have been set upon with a meat cleaver – the conversations have been hacked into nonsensical soundbites, set-ups for gags that never come or punchlines to gags never set up.

Fortunately, Peter O’Toole is usually able to find his way through a scene if it’s allowed to proceed in sequence, dragging co-stars behind him, and Peter Sellers augments the best lines of Woody Allen’s script with nonsense of his own (therapist Fritz Fassbender curses upon soaking his thighs with petrol: “Geschplund!” A straight Goon Show quote if ever there was one).

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It’s a shame about the messiness because feckless dithering in the control room is the last thing a tight farce needs, and there’s some evidence that Allen had constructed such a farce. The idea is a sound one – a shameless philanderer decides to get married and be faithful, and suddenly he’s besieged by beautiful women. Capucine’s nymphomaniac Mrs. LeFevre is possibly the funniest actor in the film, despite not getting any actual jokes. She just has beautiful timing and emphasis, and makes the other actors funnier in turn (Sellers: “You look ravishing in zat whistle”). The colossal beach whore from EIGHT AND A HALF, dressed as a Valkyrie, is also good value.

The whole cast gets assembled for a climax at a country hotel, with a rampant Andress in dropping into O’Toole’s lap from the heavens (“I yam a paris-chew-diss!”), stripping off her aviatrix jumpsuit to reveal a seductress jumpsuit underneath, then ditching that too. Oddly, despite the crummy continuity, Andress running through the hotel in her undies always has her undies disarrayed the same way from shot to shot, left butt cheek bulging out.

Disappointingly, after scene after scene of stunningly beautiful, chic Parisian sets by Richard Sylbert, the hotel is mostly a dowdy location, and rather than giving us a satisfactory conclusion there’s mere chaos, and O’Toole getting nagged by his new bride at the fade-out. Still, as she accuses him of looking at another woman (Francoise Hardy!), O’Toole enunciates acidly: “I *had* to look at her, she was *speaking* to me. I Turned in the Direction of the Sound.”

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