Culture

Romy Schneider: France’s Austrian Film Icon

For the first time in my life I took a guided tour at a Cinémathèque Française exhibit. It’s not my kind of thing, but I don’t regret it. I had only a vague idea of Romy Schneider, the subject of the exhibit, which runs until July 31. Our guide was a young woman brimming with information about the late actress, and about cinema in general. (Often the guides are persons studying at schools dedicated to culture and the arts.) She seemed to have every fact about Romy’s life and times at her fingertips. What was the reason for my lack of ciné-culture about this beloved icon? In the U.S., before easy access to “content”, whether streaming or DVDs, exposure to French movies was via film classes, magazines like Film Content, books, alternative newspapers like the Village Voice, public TV or the local highbrow movie theater. Consequently, French cinema tended to mean the New Wave. Schneider’s films, in the ‘60s and especially the ‘70s, were more traditional, what the French call classique (there were a few exceptions, such as her role in Orson Welles’ adaption of Kafka’s The Trial). I knew her name, and her beautiful face, but had blithely put her in the category of “international star.” Also, for Americans, our image of a French icon tends to be, well, French: Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, and later Isabel Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, and Juliette Binoche. Schneider was from Austria and made German-language films in the beginning of her career (her breakout was the historical drama Sissi). Even after she moved to France with her lover Alain Delon, and worked essentially in French films, she was actually dubbed for several years. As with Marilyn Monroe, a premature death as much as a glorious career elevated her to icon status. Her image has been a mainstay of glossy society magazines as well as film magazines ever since. The anniversaries of her death have been marked by loud headers proclaiming Ten Years Aleady! Actually it’s now been 40 years since she passed, and most of her films have become fodder for French TV rather than art houses or the Cinémathèque. The exhibit doesn’t delve too much into her life (her tragic death and young son’s fatal accident weren’t mentioned). We learned that her family was, if not pro-Nazi, then passive collaborators with Nazism. Also, that her mother, also an actress, was a dominant figure in Romy’s life. In addition to her French love Delon, there was a dalliance with Horst Buchholz, a young heartthrob called the German James Dean.
Alain Delon 1959, Public Domain Both the exhibit and the guided tour focus more on Schneider’s work as an actress, leading the visitor through a labyrinthine array of photos, movie stills, posters, and costumes; along every phase of her career. There are screening areas showing loops of film clips, but these are outside the purview of the tour, which lasts an hour-and-a-half as it is.

For the first time in my life I took a guided tour at a Cinémathèque Française exhibit. It’s not my kind of thing, but I don’t regret it. I had only a vague idea of Romy Schneider, the subject of the exhibit, which runs until July 31. Our guide was a young woman brimming with information about the late actress, and about cinema in general. (Often the guides are persons studying at schools dedicated to culture and the arts.) She seemed to have every fact about Romy’s life and times at her fingertips.

What was the reason for my lack of ciné-culture about this beloved icon? In the U.S., before easy access to “content”, whether streaming or DVDs, exposure to French movies was via film classes, magazines like Film Content, books, alternative newspapers like the Village Voice, public TV or the local highbrow movie theater. Consequently, French cinema tended to mean the New Wave. Schneider’s films, in the ‘60s and especially the ‘70s, were more traditional, what the French call classique (there were a few exceptions, such as her role in Orson Welles’ adaption of Kafka’s The Trial). I knew her name, and her beautiful face, but had blithely put her in the category of “international star.”

Also, for Americans, our image of a French icon tends to be, well, French: Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, and later Isabel Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, and Juliette Binoche. Schneider was from Austria and made German-language films in the beginning of her career (her breakout was the historical drama Sissi). Even after she moved to France with her lover Alain Delon, and worked essentially in French films, she was actually dubbed for several years.

As with Marilyn Monroe, a premature death as much as a glorious career elevated her to icon status. Her image has been a mainstay of glossy society magazines as well as film magazines ever since. The anniversaries of her death have been marked by loud headers proclaiming Ten Years Aleady! Actually it’s now been 40 years since she passed, and most of her films have become fodder for French TV rather than art houses or the Cinémathèque.

The exhibit doesn’t delve too much into her life (her tragic death and young son’s fatal accident weren’t mentioned). We learned that her family was, if not pro-Nazi, then passive collaborators with Nazism. Also, that her mother, also an actress, was a dominant figure in Romy’s life. In addition to her French love Delon, there was a dalliance with Horst Buchholz, a young heartthrob called the German James Dean.

A black and white photo of Alain Delon 1959

Alain Delon 1959, Public Domain

Both the exhibit and the guided tour focus more on Schneider’s work as an actress, leading the visitor through a labyrinthine array of photos, movie stills, posters, and costumes; along every phase of her career. There are screening areas showing loops of film clips, but these are outside the purview of the tour, which lasts an hour-and-a-half as it is.

Highlights of the exhibit include the films she made for director Claude Sautet but also more idiosyncratic directors such as Orson Welles (The Trial), Otto Preminger (The Cardinal), Luchino Visconti (Ludwig) and Alain Cavalier (Le Combat dans l’Isle). Of particular interest is the legendary L’Enfer, left uncompleted when the great director Henri-Georges Clouzot (who made Les Diaboliques, Le Corbeau, Le Salaire de la Peur) died during the film’s production.

Romy Schneider and Anthony Quinn, 1963 with Anthony kissing Romy's hand

Romy Schneider and Anthony Quinn, 1963 © Jack Metzger at Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately the guided tour is in French only. Neither are audio headsets in English available for the exhibit. However, the printed captions accompanying the photos, memorabilia and other materials are in both French and English.

The exhibit is accompanied by a retrospective of many of Schneider’s films. These include Claire de Femme (Costa-Gavras, 1978), Garde a Vue (Claude Miller, 1981), l’Important C’est d’Aimer (Andrzej Zulawski, 1974), Mado (Claude Sautet, 1976), Le Mouton Enragé (Michel Deville, 1973), Le Trio Infernal (Francis Girod, 1974), La Mort En Direct (Bertrand Tavernier, 1979). The films in English are for the most part minor oddities: Triple Cross (Terence Young, 1966), Bloodline (Terence Young, 1978), What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner, 1964); Good Neighbor Sam (David Swift, 1963).

The Romy Schneider Exhibit has also scheduled several special events: Special evenings for young cinéphiles on Thursdays and a “Night of the Museums” on May 14 dedicated to showing off the waltzes featured in Schneider’s breakout film, the historical romance Sissi. The 35-euro catalogue is impressively thick at 256 pages, and is chockfull of gorgeous photos (250 of them).

DETAILS

La Cinémathèque française
51 Rue de Bercy, 12th
Tel: +33 (0)1 71 19 33 33
Closed Tuesdays.
Full-price admission to the Romy Schneider exhibit, which runs until July 31, 2022, is 12 €.