Friday, 5 February 2010

Romy Schneider and Les choses de la vie, Claude Sautet, France 1969

Claude Sautet was born in 1924 and died in 2000 in Paris. He was regarded as ‘un cinéaste sociologique’(a sociological filmmaker). In fact, after his death, the then-French president, Jaques Chirac, maintained that “Claude Sautet’s films held out the mirror of our times”.

The film is based on a book by Paul Guimard, with a screenplay written by Jean Loup Dabadie, a French journalist and writer who later worked with François Truffaut on his film Une belle fille comme moi (France 1972). The reason why I consider Les choses de la vie central to Schneider's career is, first of all, because this film was their first of five collaborations and she would eventually turn into Claude Sautet’s muse. More importantly, however, in Les Choses de la vie Romy Schneider plays what later would become her trademark role: that of a modern, emancipated woman. Furthermore, after a string of mediocre films, it was this film, next to La Piscine (France 1969) that revived her career and in fact marked the beginning of what I choose to call “the great Romy Schneider years”. Les Choses de la vie received the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc in 1969. Previous recipients included Marcel Carné’s Quai de brûmes (France 1939) and Agnès Varda’s masterpiece Le bonheur (France 1964). Les Choses de la vie revolves around a dramatically filmed car accident, involving Pierre, played by Michel Piccoli, whose life is passing before his eyes as he is about to die, reflecting on the choices and decisions he made, and, most of all, on the two women in his life, his ex-wife Cathérine, played by Lea Massari and his current lover Hélène, played by Romy Schneider. Schneider and Piccoli both have star-billing in the film and both their names are mentioned above the title.

The first scene after the opening credits is almost exemplary for Schneider's subsequent career as we see her walking around a balcony with just a towel wrapped around her body, suggesting that a minute ago she might have been in the nude. Nudity (or partial nudity) was something that had become central to Schneider’s film-roles ever since she left Germany for France in the late 1950s, primarily in order to get rid of the much hated Sissi-image, which “stuck to her like oatmeal”, as she once said. Showing herself in the nude was her revenge not just on the Sissi Films, but also on the string of Heimat films, a peculiar genre that thrived in Germany in the 1950s, and in which Schneider’s role was instrumental (Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht, Hans Deppe, Germany 1953; Die Deutschmeister, Ernst Marischka, Germany 1955) and which contributed to turn her into one of the biggest stars of post-war Germany. But it was a fame that she rejected to such a degree that when she was offered one million Deutschmark in the early 1960s to star in Sissi, part 4, she declined. Even Luchino Visconti had quite a time persuading her to revive the part once more in his film Ludwig (Italy, France, West Germany1972) and she only accepted after having been reassured by him that his idea of the Austrian empress would be more true to life than the escapist version she played in the Ernst Marischka films of the 1950. “Stars are endowed with national iconicity and as such have cultural value. Clearly a star’s meaning can shift from the national to the international level” (Hayward 2000: 355). Schneider’s role in history underlines this comment for she was a major star in Germany before rising to even greater fame in France, in spite of never losing her German accent.

Drawing a parallel between Schneider and Marlene Dietrich, who made a similar move 30years earlier, it must be added that Dietrich was often of dubious origin in most of her American films whereas Schneider was always introduced as a German. Another difference between the two stars is the fact that unlike Dietrich, Schneider never played a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, something Dietrich did on various occasions (A Foreign Affair, Billy Wilder, USA 1947; Judgement At Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer USA 1960). But Dietrich, having acquired American citizenship in 1939 and who fought on the side of the Allies during World War II, could afford to do that whereas Schneider could not. Well aware of the atrocities committed by her country during the war, she had something of a guilt-complex which was fuelled by the fact that her mother, Magda Schneider, not only was Hitler's neighbour in Berchtesgaden, but also knew him personally. As a result, Schneider took pains to show her empathy with the Jews by, for instance, giving both her children Jewish christian names, David and Sarah.

“…The social history of nation can be written in terms of its film stars” (Durgnat in Dyer 1986: 6). Tying in with the above quote by Hayward, I think this one aptly expresses the extent to which the relationship between Germany and France had improved just 15 years after WWII for Schneider to rise to such fame in a country that had been a traditional enemy of Germany! That she went on to play various roles in which she portrayed Nazi victims (Le train, Pierre Granier-Deferre, France/ Italy 1973; La passante de Sans-Souci, Jaques Rouffio, France/ West Germany 1982) surely helped, as did the fact that she got married to a Frenchman, Daniel Biasini, in 1975. As a result, her relationship to her home country remained ambiguous throughout her life, for although she never gave up her German passport, the Germans not only resented her for deserting them, but also, I believe, for the fact that she frequently portrayed Nazi victims, which was something her countrymen were uncomfortable with as coming to terms with their history did not start in Germany until well into the 1980s.

A last important point about Schneider is her private life which was riddled by tragedy, starting with her break-up from Alain Delon in 1963 followed by the suicide of her first husband Harry Meyen in 1979, and culminated in the accidental death of her beloved son, David, in 1981, a year before her own death. The traumas Schneider went through were, in my opinion, something that two groups in particular could relate to and identify with: gay men, and women. Taking into consideration that the time when Schneider came into her own in film-roles in which she portrayed modern, emancipated women, was the advent of gay as well as women’s lib, it is, I believe, no coincidence that those two groups in particular made her their role model, for their freeing themselves from the shackles of society was reflected in the parts she played on screen. And any process of liberation involves a great deal of suffering, which was reflected in Schneider's life off screen, as well as on. A quote by Bernard Pascuito ties in with this: “Not that far away and at times so close to the characters she played on screen. Women who stopped loving, women who suffer and who make others suffer, frustrated mistresses and cuckolded wifes” (Pascuito in Agence France Presse 2002).

Romy Schneider was the recipient of two Césars (L’Importance c’est d’aimer, Andrzej Zulawski, France 1975; Une histoire simple, Claude Sautet, France 1979). She was voted actress of the 20th century by the readers of Paris-Match, receiving 42% of all votes (Agence France Presse 2002), and she was depicted on 15 covers of Paris-Match between 1961 and 1982. Two moving references also deserve being mentioned to show the on-going fascination with the Romy Schneider legend: one in Almodovar’s film All About My Mother (Spain/ France 1999) and a second one in François Ozon’s 8 femmes (France 2002). Again, that both directors are gay is, I think, no coincidence. In conclusion I would like to suggest that Romy Schneider’s off-screen persona was such that watching her on screen is like watching two films simultaneously: the one we see before us (Romy Schneider, the actress), and a second one, which is running on another level (Romy Schneider, the star), not unlike a film’s soundtrack, and separating the two is literally impossible.


Agence France Presse (May 28, 2002), no page numbers; no author name given
Dyer, Richard (1986): Stars.London: BFI
Hayward, Susan (2000): Cinema Studies/ Key Concepts. London: Routledge
Pascuito, Pascal (2002): la double mort de Romy. Paris: Albin Michel


A Foreign Affair, Billy Wilder, USA 1947
All About My Mother, Pedro Almodovar, Spain/ France 1999
Die Deutschmeister, Ernst Marischka, Germany 1955
Judgement At Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer, USA 1960
La passante de Sans-Souci, Jaques Rouffio, France/ West Germany 1982
La piscine, Jaques Deray, France/ Italy 1969
Les choses de la vie, Claude Sautet, France/ Italy/ Switzerland 1969
Le train, Pierre Granier-Deferre, France/ Italy 1973
L’importance c’est d’aimer, Andrzej Zulawski, France/ Italy/ West Germany 1975
Ludwig, Luchino Visconti, France/ Italy/ West Germany 1972
Sissi (part 1), Ernst Marischka, Germany 1955
Sissi (part 2), Ernst Marischka, Germany 1956
Sissi (part 3), Ernst Marischka, Germany 1957
Une histoire simple, Claude Sautet, France/ West Germany 1978
Wenn Der Weisse Flieder wieder blüht, Hans Deppe, Germany 1953
8 femmes, François Ozon, France/ Italy 2002