La Paloma

(Daniel Schmid, France/Switzerland, 1974)


The Shadow of Daniel Schmid


Passion that takes such a stance – recognising nothing as carnally exciting that has not in advance turned ambiguous, and is not situated right at the intersection of the straight and the bent, at the very spot where the insufficiency declares itself and the aversion sets in – is directly linked to romantic irony, which is similarly based on the clear perception of a limit and an insufficiency, a pain immediately surmounted and transformed into the source of new exaltation, like a wall against which the ball rebounds or the unforeseen movement of the bull …

– Michel Leiris, “The Bullfight as Mirror” (1937)


Romanticism always turns into decadence. Nature is a hard taskmaster.

– Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990)


Every certainty sleepwalks. (Sleepwalking is the primal image of every spiritual certainty.)

– Robert Musil, Literature and Politics (1930-1942)


Where is the reputation of Daniel Schmid (1941-2006) today, 16 years after his death? And when will the totality of his work become accessible to view in the best possible versions? For now, unfortunately, he remains a man of cinema’s shadows. And he has been, over the years, beginning in his lifetime, forcibly cast into a particular twin-shadow: as the travelling-companion and sometime collaborator of both Werner Schroeter (1945-2010) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982). Thus, he is placed on the same, implicitly secondary level of many such companions of the New German scene of the 1970s, such as Ulli Lommel (1944-2017) or Walter Bockmayer (1948-2014).


But Schmid – known in Switzerland as “The Magician” – deserves to be rescued from this shadowy, second-tier dungeon, and seen as a master in his own right. Connoisseur-scholars of Swiss cinema (including Freddy Buache and Vinzenz Hediger) have long viewed him this way. It’s time to catch up with their clearer perception.


La Paloma was Schmid’s second feature (after Tonight or Never in 1972), and for many of his devotees it endures as his greatest. Only further, proper research into the œuvre can verify that claim. Novelist-essayist Gary Indiana has given it the type of fannish, Dennis Cooper/David Ehrenstein-ish slather of praise (roughly: ‘We’ve all been there, hopelessly besotted by an illusion!’) that wins it eternal, sophisticated assent among the Artforum crowd. And there’s something to be said for Indiana’s offhand gesture toward the legacy of Romanticism, and how the wily Schmid fences with it: “It’s a souvenir of the last [i.e., 19th] century, and not the worst one”.


Schroeter’s own, oft-repeated tribute to La Paloma, however, goes directly to the heart of its achievement. After praising the “triumph of kitsch” and relating the film to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”, Schroeter (in the excellent 2010 documentary on Schmid, Le chat qui pense), adds this crucial proviso.


And then these elements transform themselves into something new, which not only has ironic distance but also surmounts this distance again, in a kind of somersault, thereby attaining new expressive force.


This is a somersault typical of the best cinema of the 1970s: what Leiris identified as Romantic irony becomes, almost miraculously, a renewed form of sincerity and innocence. It is, in its way, the very lesson of what has become a key text of modernity, Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theatre” – central to, for example, Hélène Frappat’s 2001 book Jacques Rivette, secret compris.


It has become standard order to comment – as seemingly all Schmid’s friends and collaborators do – on the director’s ‘alpine’ origins, and how being an elevated ‘man of the mountains’ from birth granted him a certain, airy sensibility (and perhaps also some difficulty in accommodating himself to everyday flat land). For the great Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi (whose superb essay “Daniel Schmid or Interrupted Choreography” appeared in a 1999 Swiss book on Schmid), the metaphor takes a further twist: being an artist at such heights, Schmid naturally developed several literal ‘inclinations’ (inclines) – one toward the German Romanticism of the avant-garde 1970s, and another toward Italian opera.


Vinzenz Hediger, in personal correspondence, expressed to me the core of Hasumi’s analysis, and its powerful effect on Schmid himself. Hasumi “studied composition features, particularly gender constellation and the representation of female, and more particular mother, figures”. In this model, women within the film move or direct (as it were) the mise en scène; while men are passive and manipulated. The world moves around the women.


Furthermore, Hasumi “showed that Schmid’s compositional preferences aligned with those of Kabuki theatre and Japanese painting and art. He then discussed the fact that Schmid grew up without a father figure and surrounded by multiple mother figures, i.e., much like your average Japanese boy.” Hediger adds here: “That, by the way, is also the explanation of why psychoanalysis has trouble finding traces of the Oedipus complex in Japan”; he could have also added that this specific familial configuration is often deployed to ‘explain’ the origin of gay artists – Schroeter wields it as just one of many underlying mythic and/or psychoanalytic templates in The Rose King (1986).


Hediger concludes: “Schmid loved that study, and Hasumi’s work got him interested in Kabuki, which led to The Written Face (1995), his other great documentary about artists together with Il Bacio di Tosca (1984), his fantastic film about retired opera singers in Milan”. Good news: The Written Face, at least, has recently been restored for presentation in the 2022 Locarno Film Festival.


Schmid once declared: “I believe people have a need for mythical forms, mysterious images, atavistic fairy tales and magic symbols that take them back to the hidden memories of their childhood and their culture”. This resembles the creed of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg during his breakthrough 1970s period, but without the loaded politics or ambiguous nationalism. Schmid was always a more cosmopolitan figure, detached (once past the 1960s) from sectarian lines.


La Paloma is the first Schmid film to grasp the nettle of mythic form. That much is clear from the central role taken by a phantasmic character identified as “The Force of Imagination”, a poysexual/hermaphroditic angel played by Jérôme Nicolin (1947-2006), known as the “Belle de Mai” (this actor also appeared in films by Rivette and Jean-Paul Rappeneau).


In one of the best and most memorable scenes, New German Cinema superstars Ingrid Caven (as Viola) and Peter Kern (as Isidor) mime to an operatic duet, with a suitably Romantic landscape in the background (it looks real, not a back projection); well into this spectacle, The Force floats by, superimposed, horizontal as in Marc Chagall’s “Over the Town” (1918). At the end of the film, this figure will turn a truly magical trick: staring into the sad hero’s eyes, she will wind back time to the originary moment of fatal temptation and seduction (Viola’s stage act), allowing the poor fellow to look away and not be ensnared … Imagination’s Force has been demonstrated; it need not (it seems) be repeated.


In Schmid’s universe, myth is impossible to separate from popular culture. La paloma: the bird of love that flies, that cannot be held for long in the hand. Viola, the Lady of the Camellias-type heroine here, fated from the first to die, is in this sense Lola Lola from The Blue Angel (1930): she marks that “domination by the beautiful personality” – especially when projected in performance from a stage, no matter how homely or tawdry – which (as Camille Paglia explains in her magnificent and now underrated Sexual Personae) is central to Romanticism, “passing through Poe and Baudelaire to Wilde”.


In Spain, palomo is slang for a gay man; and effeminate people are sometimes described as ‘showing their feathers’. Fur, feathers, flowers: the total camp iconography is on display in La Paloma. The very idea of casting Bulle Ogier (at 35) as the mother of Kern (at 25) is the definition of a camp joke. Especially as, in 1974, Ogier looks younger than 35 and Kern looks older than 25. I also detect a private in-joke here: Bulle did indeed give birth to Pascale Ogier (1958-1984) when she was still a teenager. But she was 19 at the time, not 10! This discrepancy is, in fact, the subject of a fine reflection in Ogier’s 2019 autobiographical memoir, J’ai oublié (“I’ve forgotten”).


In La Paloma by my dear friend Daniel Schmid, I play Ingrid Caven’s mother [AM: she is misremembering] – which makes no sense, since we were born in the same era, but Daniel never set out to make realist films. It was a one-scene role [AM: actually three]. To signify the difference in age, and lend myself a little majesty, I chose a fur, a cane and a hat that cast a shadow on my face, preventing anyone from seeing that I was just as old as Ingrid [AM: !!]. With these three elements, I felt completely at ease ruling and frightening my world.


Far more than Schroeter, and in a manner quite different to Fassbinder, Schmid is a filmmaker whose personal cinephilia saturates his work on every level. La Paloma revels in the special exoticism granted to cinema by certain sub-genres and several key filmmakers, such as Josef von Sternberg in The Shanghai Gesture (1941 – and when is that masterpiece ever going to get a proper restoration?). Schmid’s entire film is based on the exaggeration of a familiar iconography of aristocratic ‘leisure time’ and its lolling rituals: dining, travelling (by train, especially: supreme site of movie artifice in Max Ophüls, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch), grand palaces and mansions (on a mountain side by the water, seen in a silent-movie iris!), overripe flowers and plants (signs of withering, overpowering, entropic nature), clubs, casinos, racing tracks (Schmid stages the most minimalistic horse race ever) … We are not far here from the merry Orientalism and/or colonial decadence of everything from Erich von Stroheim and Sternberg to Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975), a film clearly influenced by La Paloma.


Leaning closer to Douglas Sirk (on whom Schmid made a lovely documentary in 1983), there is the baroque clutter of multiple lit candles – and the ubiquitous, giant mirrors. In another, specific prefiguration of India Song, La Paloma highlights a choreography in which three characters (now with Peter Chatel as Raoul as part of an Eternal Triangle) descend the stairs; first, Viola stops at the bottom step, and looks at herself in the mirror in order to deliver (by speaking aloud) a ‘secret’ message to Raoul; when she exits the frame, Raoul stops at the same step and looks at himself too, as if to ‘receive’ that message in the designated spot; and, finally, Isidor stops above Raoul and looks into the mirror as well. Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1 evoked the filmmakers’s “interiors divided in two by mirrors, with a minimum of reference points [i.e., in space] and a multiplication of points-of-view with no connection”.


Cristina Álvarez López pointed out to me La Paloma’s strong affinity with the cinema of Luis Buñuel: Viola laid out holding a crucifix conjures Silvia Pinel in Viridiana (1961); spectral hauntings beyond the grave evoke the Wuthering Heights adaptation Abismos de pasión (1954); and – last but far from least – the ultimate ‘rewind in time’ recalls the structure of The Exterminating Angel (1962).


An ode to Ingrid Caven is in order. It has already been written, and superbly so, by her husband, Jean-Jacques Schuhl (Ingrid Caven: A Novel, 2000, English translation from City Lights in 2004 – see an extract here). In La Paloma, her death-driven character is described as a “mask”, and that fits Caven’s performance style to a tee: “Rainer [Werner Fassbinder] loved Brecht and Chinese tradition”, she noted of her early, decisive influences. “Masks, Kleist, puppets. Trying to appear ‘natural’ in front of a camera would have seemed simply grotesque”. The ultimate Wildean, contra natura paradox: realistic acting is the thing that’s grotesque, not all-out stylisation and artifice.


In La Paloma, Caven is that special figure gliding between worlds: the sleepwalker. “Sleepwalking is the primal image of every spiritual certainty”. Like Delphine Seyrig (from Alain Resnais to another beacon of German Queer Cinema, Ulrike Ottinger), Caven gives a new brand of glamour and cool to states of living-dead decay and abjection. Her sleepwalker strolls into the daemonic iconography of Late Romanticism: figures of the witch, vampire and succubus form a crucial Gothic element in that cultural constellation. Even several Philippe Garrel films, such as Frontier of Dawn (2008) inspired by the tales of Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), plug into this especially haunted and melancholic tradition.


For a Man such as Isidor/Kern (and this was the actor’s New German speciality, especially for Fassbinder), abjection is a matter of infinite masochism, being bled dry of all money, savagely exploited and regally ignored, always on the losing end of an asymmetrical relation – and condemned, at the last (after a striking ellipse and backtrack in narrative time), to forever tell his putrid tale, frozen in the position of narrator (a similar, embedded storytelling structure appears in Rita Azevedo GomesA Woman’s Revenge [2012]).


For the Woman, it’s a carefully controlled mise en scène of pills, medicines, potions and poisons. Viola wastes away in the manner of Dumas’ Camille: “I had a sort of hope I should kill myself by all these excesses”. Ultimately, she even perverts, in magnificent fashion, the religious myth of the Resurrection, becoming the Abject (and proto-Punk) Icon par excellence: the good-looking corpse!


The love-death complex of Late Romanticism (“what is morbid in our Romantic inheritance”, as Victor Perkins said of Lola Montès [1955)] reaches its apogee when Isidor hacks up the (discreetly below-screen) corpse of Viola – in order to fit her pieces into an absurdly small urn by sunset – and a laughter that could be his or hers fills the soundtrack … at which point, Isidor’s eye is caught by the gaze, from a balcony, of her at-last triumphant mother. Even the vastly underrated Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981) can’t do maternal abjection better!


Throughout it all, Schmid carves out his cinematic style – a style comparable to those shadow-casters Schroeter and Fassbinder, but also different to theirs, and unique. Hasumi insists that Schmid never shows the interior of his characters; he deals not in dramatic stagings in this sense (i.e., psychological mise en scène), but rather dance choreographies.


Slowness of movement and gesture – sometimes to the acute point of (almost) total (trembling) stillness, as in the filmed tableaux vivants of Duras, Schroeter, Raúl Ruiz, Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982) or Laleen Jayamanne’s A Song of Ceylon (1985) – is the tactic that governs everything: the pause before and after each line, the careful foley rendering of every single footstep, the turning and looking, the stop-start layering of each component in the mix (that blasted-out birdsong!), even the constant overstatement of the plainly obvious (“Mother”; “I’m Viola”).


Slowness is central, too, to the particular agencement of actor and character, persona and figure, that Schmid orchestrates. Deleuze again:


Schmid invents a slowness which makes possible the dividing in two of characters, as if they were to one side of what they say and do, and chose from among the external clichés the one that will embody them from the inside, in a perpetual interchangeability of inside and outside.


Schmid opts for neither the generally static framings of Schroeter nor the sinuous tracking shots of Fassbinder (and his cinematographers); the slow panning shot is his thing, eliminating the need for cuts between those who gaze across the space covered by the camera … And, after all, remember that the film’s subtitle is ”the time of a look”: like in Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Javanaise”, love is that ecstasy which lasts only as long as a song or a dance or an exchange of glances (fixed eternally in a panorama). All the rest is Illusion – or Imagination.


Fittingly, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), too, is in the Schmid cinephilic mix. In the glacial slowness, and the jewel-like colour scheme; but perhaps, above all, in the conception of Viola’s character. Insofar as Vertigo is about a dream of resurrection or reincarnation – and hence the impossible imperishability of the flesh – La Paloma literalises its deep logic one step further. And there is certainly a touch of Kim Novak, at her most imperious, in Ingrid Caven!


Written up from lecture notes prepared for the Cinea 2022 Summer Film School in Antwerp, 14 July 2022.  

© Adrian Martin July 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search