1981, Quiberon, Brittany. A woman enters a hotel lobby. After the concierge gives her a load of instructions in French, she asks if he can speak English or German. She is talking in English, but has an Austrian accent. She books a room, then asks if she could speak to Romy Schneider. The concierge calls up to Schneider’s room, but there is no answer.
Romy Schneider’s star seems to have waned in recent years, but once upon a time she was huge. She became famous at 16, playing Sissi in a film about an Austrian emperor. The film was so successful that it spawned sequels. Schneider had an on-off relationship with Alain Deloin and moved with him to France. The German press in particular found it difficult to square her later lifestyle with her child actor innocence.
By the time this film was set, one year before her eventual death, Schneider was a wreck. She was estranged from her two children, and was broke, having no idea what had happened to the money from all those films. The hotel was the site for a rehabilitation clinic where the waiters serve you food which looks unpalatable, but is “good for you”. Alcohol was, of course, strictly forbidden.
Schneider’s visitor is Hilde, an old friend. We presume that Hilde is there for moral support as Schneider has agreed to give an interview to Stern magazine. Hilde isn’t sure that this is a good idea. Romy’s not in the best state to start with, and talking about her son who doesn’t want to live with her, or the ex-husband who committed suicide may tip her over the edge.
The journalists arrive. One is a rat-faced man, who is the interviewer, obvs. He is Michael or Micha Jürgs, and is reluctant to use the personal form “du”. The other is Robert, a photographer, who knows Romy from before. We later learn that they once spent a romantic evening together which didn’t end in sex. As Jürgs starts asking personal questions, Robert looks uncomfortable.
In the evening, they decide to sneak out and find a bar that will serve them ridiculous amounts of champagne. At first they’re told that there’s a private party, but then they notice that its only Sissi. Robert circles the bar taking photographs, while the table where the others are sitting is visited by a string of young people, and an eccentrically dressed man who insists on reading them his poetry. For some reason, no-one tells him to fuck off and leave them in peace.
On the second day of the interview, they find more alcohol. Jürgs asks about Schneider’s personal life to try and provoke a response. He prods her about her mother – an actress much loved by Hitler who has frequently spoken to the press about her daughter. How much was she profiting from these interviews? Buoyed by the wine, Remy’s statements become increasingly indiscreet. She castigates herself for being an unhappy drunk and a bad mother.
Hilde leaves the interview and later confronts Jürgs. Robert will also ask his colleague if he’s not being a little manipulative. Jürgs is unrepentant. Isn’t Hilde just as guilty of basking in the reflected glory of her more famous friend? And as for Robert – when he was photographing the bar, wasn’t the first thing he did finding the person in the bar most interested in technology and offering him a go on his camera? After that, he could take photos for free with impunity.
I saw this film a couple of years ago when it came out, and was watching it again in a rather damp open air cinema. Maybe it was the inclement weather, but I wasn’t quite as entranced by it this time round. It was still an interesting take on artistic self-loathing, but it didn’t seem to be quite as astounding on a second viewing.
Nonetheless it is beautifully filmed – in black and white to mirror the original photographs – and the conflicts between the four quite different main characters feel real. The happy-ish ending belies what happened in reality, when Schneider’s beloved son died in an accident, she went into a downward spiral which would cost her life the following year. But this is relatively incidental to the main, and more substantial body of the film.