Do you remember the first time you ate Turkish delight? The first time you drank champagne? The first time you saw Romy Schneider in a film? Some of life’s pleasures are of a quality so divine as to transcend the realms of mere memory, but I at least remember the last of these vividly. It was not one of Schneider’s most famous films, nor one that has particularly remained in any significant place in the popular memory: Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch from 1980, based on David G. Compton’s 1973 novel The Unsleeping Eye. While notable alone for uniting Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton, the film is long overdue a major contemporary reappraisal for its depiction of a reality television drenched future. Keitel’s character has camera technology embedded in his eye so he can document the dying days of Schneider’s Katherine Mortenhoe without her knowledge — a high-value commercial media commodity in a world where death from sickness has been virtually eradicated. With a premise rehashed tiresomely in recent years by less talented actors and directors (Black Mirror, I’m talking to you), it is largely Schneider’s humane, dignified performance of a character holding it together in a world gone media mad that grants this film its potency and longevity.
Later, my fascination with Schneider piqued, I’d watch a movie simply if it had her in it: Orson Welles’s 1962 Kafka adaptation The Trial was a favourite, as was Léonard Keigel’s Qui from 1970. Like so many others, I was fascinated by the footage of Schneider that remained from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished experimental film Inferno, reworked into a 2009 documentary of the same name by filmmakers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea. Here, Schneider is drenched at time in pastel hues—blue skin, bluer lips—at others a swirling, kaleidoscopic bride in a veil. The enigmatic force of Clouzot’s unchallenged mastery as a visual stylist with Schneider’s unrelenting screen presence was and remains a potent combination, and the tantalizing ‘what ifs’ about this planned collaboration remains one of the great lost opportunities of cinema history.
Late at night, when I’m too tired to go to bed and so get lost down a Google Image Search, I sometimes find myself almost subconsciously browsing through images of Schneider with Alain Delon, with whom she was in a relationship with from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Contextually, of course—they’re hardly ideal images in retrospect: Delon famously cheated on her with Nico from the Velvet Underground, leading to the end of their engagement, and today he is known more for being a puffy far-right supporting kook than as the dreamboat in Visconti’s The Leopard, Melville’s Le Samouraï, Louis Malle’s segment from Spirits of the Dead or the surprisingly hot heist/bromance Farewell Friend with Charles Bronson.
These photos of Schneider with Delon are as much part of her legacy and the way that she is remembered as her films themselves, underscoring just how closely her screen persona and public image as a celebrity were tied, particularly in Europe. It is this mirroring that forms the basis of Emily Atef’s extraordinarily moving Schneider biopic 3 Days in Quiberon. As Schneider—played to intimate perfection by Marie Bäumer—says at one point in exasperation, “I’m not Sissi!”, referencing her frustration at the widespread expectations in Germany in particular that put enormous pressure on her to live up to the character that made her a star. Schneider would launch her career, as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with Sissi in 1955, followed by two sequels, Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957). After these roles, she found herself largely typecast as a doe-eyed ingénue, and eventually moved to Paris for better and more challenging opportunities.
It is, therefore, that Schneider later in her career found herself basically doing rehab-lite at a luxury hotel in Quiberon, a holiday beach resort town in France. As the film efficiently summarises in an intertitle, “Romy Schneider was one of the biggest movie stars of her time. She died under unresolved circumstances at the age of 43, several months after the tragic death of her beloved son. One year before, she is on a retreat in Quiberon in Brittany”. In many ways, the film mimics the interview structure of biopics like Frost/Nixon or Jackie, its ‘action’ wholly based on conversations between a journalist and their enigmatic subject. In this case, the film is based on an interview published in Germany’s Stern Magazine in April 1981 by Michael Jürgs, accompanied by photographs by Robert Lebeck.
Played by Charly Hübner and Robert Gwisdek respectively, the pair’s relationship with Schneider in the film appears to mirror much of the eponymous time the figures spent together doing the interview in real life. Although notoriously hostile to the press and resentful of their intrusion on her private life, Schneider accepted the interview almost solely because of her fondness for Lebeck, a mutual warmth that manifests so famously in the exquisite photographs he took of her at the time; on the beach, in the hotel, and later, when reunited with her daughter.
Her relationship with Jürgs, however, was clearly not as affectionate. A credit at the film’s end that it was “inspired by conversations with M. Jürgs and R. Lebeck” is quite telling in how Jürgs may have viewed the ethics of what he was doing, as his ‘interview’ verges on harassing a woman clearly at a difficult time in her life. But if questions of exploitation hover almost ambiently across scenes, Bäumer makes it abundantly clear who is in control, even if—by Schneider’s own admission—her life is in many major ways spiralling out of control.
There is, however, and important deviation in the film from the real interview upon which is based. The film is driven by the interplay between four characters, not just three, and it is the calm, protective presence of Schneider’s childhood friend Hilde Fritsch (played by a wonderfully feline Birgit Minichmayr) that acts as a buffer against the constantly shifting presentation of the two media men. Surprisingly, Fritsch is a fictional character – Emily Atef noted in the film’s press kit that she “did not just want to show ‘Romy and the men’, but also the different kind of intimacy between female friends”. There was a real-life inspiration for the character, however, but as Atef has explained, she did not want to be represented in the film by name because “it was too emotional for her”.
Even more telling about the film’s motives is Atef’s decision to avoid dwelling on what happened to Schneider between those days in Quiberon and when she passed away on 29 May 1982, and if anything should defend this film from accusations of exploitation, it is in the decision to step away from a horror almost too unimaginable to describe: the violent death of her beloved son David at the age of 14 after falling onto a spiked fence and ripping open his femoral artery.1 To his credit, it was Delon who organised for David and Schneider to be buried together in the same grave at Boissy-sans-Avoir and spoke of this reunion – and his with her – in a beautiful article for Paris Match just after her death.2
Compassionate, emotional, and thoughtful, 3 Days in Quiberon chooses not to attempt to tell the whole story of one woman’s life: the film argues that no life can be reduced to a handful of anecdotes, or a simplistic media image that a living, breathing human being has little hope of living up to. People are complicated and aren’t puzzles to solve, even film stars as luminous, enigmatic and as enduring as Romy Schneider.