How did Romy Schneider die, really?

Marie Baümer plays Romy Schneider in Emily Atef’s “3 Days in Quiberon.” Photo by Peter Harting - Rohfilm Factory - Prokino, courtesy of Metropolis

BEIRUT: Emily Atef’s 2018 feature “3 Days in Quiberon” aspires to be two films in one. Most obviously, Atef has made a biopic of Romy Schneider, the beautiful, Austrian-born actor who died young, at the age of 44.

In Germany and Austria, Schneider found celebrity as a teenager, acting in naïve period dramas, depicting a 19th-century Austrian empress. She soon graduated to more demanding adult roles, directed by an array of serious directors – her career and lifestyle choices provoking criticism from the German-language press.

The nature of Schneider’s status – elevated by her publicized private life as much as her successful acting career, lent an air of tragedy by her early death – would make her a compelling social media phenomenon today, if only the millennials among us knew who she was.

It may be because of Schneider’s absence from contemporary popular culture (outside art house cinemas, at least) that Atef’s film sets out to be more than a hagiographic biopic. She also stages an intimate case study of celebrity, with three character types – loyal friend, starry-eyed photographer, moralizing writer – foiling the film star.

“3 Days in Quiberon” premiered earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival. It will have what appears to be its Middle East debut Thursday evening, opening the fifth edition of German Film Week at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, with Atef on hand to present her work.

Shot in shimmering black and white, “3 Days” recounts the last 72 hours of Schneider’s 1981 detox session at a luxury spa in Brittany. The film’s events took place a few months before her teenage son’s accidental death (impaled on a spiked fence) and the actor died from cardiac arrest a year later.

Atef’s script folds ample sympathy into its depiction of her unstable protagonist. Given her vulnerability, Marie Baümer’s depiction of Schneider is a necessarily sentimental one, yet she also brings believable complexity to the character.

At times Schneider asserts herself as a strong figure, pointing out that she is not the characters she depicts in her film roles and that the public should take her seriously as an actor. For much of the film, though, she exudes a palpable fragility that makes her behaviour seem childlike.

While trying to wean herself off her alcohol dependency, the actor was depressed about her financial insecurity and the prospect of her son’s wanting to live with his father in the U.S. By the time her childhood friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr) joins her for the final stretch of her rehab holiday, Schneider’s endured a couple of booze-free weeks of bland food, but she’s still taking sleeping pills and chain smoking.

(If there is one feature of this film that’s unassailable in its historical authenticity, it’s the pervasive smoking. During various panning shots of the Sofitel hotel lobby, disciplined ropes of smoke rise from almost every hand.)

Atef ejects a strain of speculative fiction into the verisimilitude. Dwelling on Schneider’s habit of mixing booze and sleeping pills, the film pitches into an old debate as to whether the actor really died from cardiac arrest or may have actually ended her own life.

It’s during Hilde’s stay that Schneider has consented to an interview with the German news magazine Stern. Hilde is leery of Schneider’s exposing herself to the German press while she’s in such a fragile state. She replies that she only agreed to the interview because it was requested by an old photographer friend.

The arrival of photojournalist Robert Lebeck (Charly Hübner) and reporter Michael Jürgs (Robert Gwisdek) drives Schneider’s simmering instability to a boil.

A former lover, Lebeck comes off as the more sympathetic of the two hacks – a man awash in middle age who delights in capturing the changeable face of Schneider’s beauty. Jürgs – whose muckraking article “The Fall of Romy Schneider” earned him a book contract and fleeting notoriety – is a failed political writer relegated to celebrity interviews. As such, his tendency to malign Schneider probably reflects personal animosity less than his sense of professional humiliation.

“3 Days in Quiberon” is a handsome, well-acted, not particularly engrossing film. Its insights into the popular media’s parasitic relationship to celebrity are not revelatory. Nor are its observations that relentless public scrutiny can accentuate emotional instability among humans. It may serve to revive interest in Romy Schneider’s work. That’s hardly a bad thing.

“3 Days in Quiberon” screens (with English subtitles) at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. German Film Week continues through Sept. 23.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2018, on page 16.




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