One year before her tragic death at the age of 43, Romy Schneider posed for photographs and gave an extensive interview to a German journalist while staying at a Breton spa hotel in Quiberon. Her magnetic personality and evanescent moods were memorably captured in the monochromatic images, and the interview turned into an unvarnished, emotional self-appraisal at a time when she was roiled in insecurities. That’s the setting of Emily Atef’s respectful, by-the-numbers semi-recreation “3 Days in Quiberon,” a fictionalized treatment inspired by those sessions. Marie Bäumer’s uncanny resemblance and fine central performance anchor what is ultimately a predictable treatment of a tortured actress, nicely lensed in black and white, that will find resonance in countries where Schneider remains a much-beloved star.
Schneider’s tremendous European popularity never made it across the ocean, largely because the “Sissi” films that made her a major celebrity at the age of 17 never achieved the cult status in the States that they did in Austria, Germany, and beyond. The film series was a highly romanticized concoction about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and for many, Romy became the embodiment of that fiction. The teenage purity and sweetness worked against her as a woman, and her frustration at not being able to break free from the Sissi image led to her moving to France, where she chose ever more challenging roles designed to counter the studio’s anodyne construction. She also engaged in a series of well-publicized affairs, marriages, and divorces, making her major fodder for the tabloids.
Atef’s film begins the day in 1981 when journalist Michael Jürgs (Robert Gwisdek) and photographer Robert Lebeck (Charly Hübner) arrive at the spa in Quiberon where Schneider is meant to dry out. Also checking in is Schneider’s childhood friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr), there to lend support and protection (Hilde is a fictional character, although Schneider did have a friend with her at the time). The star is not in good shape: Worn out from back-to-back films and still traumatized by the hanging suicide of her ex-husband two years earlier, she’s received a fresh blow from her 14-year-old son, who’s told her he doesn’t want to live with her anymore.
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Even without knowing the actual interview or the photographs, it’s not difficult to imagine exactly what happens in the course of the three days. Michael is the standard-issue cynical celebrity journalist who’d rather be a political reporter, and Schneider is the bewitching chain-smoking movie star trying to drown her demons in champagne bottles. Desperate to “take back control” of her life — even though she never had control — Romy is cajoled to drop her protective walls, and the result is an honest series of conversations in which she discusses her relationship with her actor parents, opens up about her rejection of the Sissi phenomenon, and exposes her insecurities as a mother.
Shutterbug Lebeck is an old flame of Schneider’s who somewhat tries to protect her in between camera clicks, while Hilde becomes increasingly distressed at seeing her friend reveal far more than is probably wise to a reporter who’s likely to exploit the star. There’s a drunken scene in a seaside restaurant in which a tipsy patron (Denis Lavant) recites some poetry, but otherwise, apart from an amusing waiter (Stephane Lalloz), the scenes play out exactly as one might expect, complete with ill-advised sentimental music that smacks of emotional manipulation.
For fans of Romy — a superb actress who conveyed charm and vulnerability in equal measure — “3 Days” will pleasurably feed the sheer joy of connecting with a beloved star. Even those less familiar with her work and personality will sympathetically respond to the portrayal of a troubled woman on the cusp of further tragedies (her teenage son was accidentally killed later that year, and she died of a heart attack not long after). Yet Atef’s recreation, admittedly not exact, doesn’t add to our understanding of Schneider’s struggles, it just offers a primer of her self-doubts. Ironically (and not addressed in the film), the actress’s inner life was more aligned to Sissi’s than anyone imagined: both treated as decorative beauties, both tormented by inner demons their devotees wanted to know nothing about.
The choice to film in black-and-white was dictated by the Hübner photos, though the use of monochrome also reinforces the overall impression of a respectful portrait that won’t venture out on any limb. Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast makes attractive use of the tonal palette, wielding the handheld camera with whirling energy when Schneider’s own mood is galvanized by alcohol and the need to push away unpleasant thoughts. In the end, Romy comes across not as her conservative Sissi fans might have liked, but as she probably wanted: real, flawed, open-hearted, and very human.