Sep 6, 2017

Violanta




As someone that regards his previous features Heute nacht oder nie (1972) aka Tonight or Never, La Paloma (1974), and Schatten der Engel (1976) aka Shadow of Angels as some of my all-time favorite films, it is only natural that I have eagerly anticipated seeing Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid’s fourth feature Violanta (1978) about as much as a 40-year-old virgin craves to get his first proper whiff of a fresh warm twat. Although I have always feared that I might not ever get the chance to see the film since, not unlike most of Schmid’s early films, it has never been released in any home media format aside from a hard-to-find foreign VHS sans subtitles, luckily I managed to find an admittedly rather poor quality print that some German guy generously created English subs for. After recently having the luxury of watching the film, I can safely say that, like Schmid’s previous three features, it is unequivocally an unsung masterpiece that is in desperate need of being rediscovered by cinephiles lest it suffer the cinematically tragic fate of being regulated to the celluloid ash heap of cinema history. A somewhat morbid and melancholic yet beauteous and poetic melodrama that includes an eclectic all-star European arthouse cast including Lucia Bosé, Maria Schneider, Lou Castel, Gérard Depardieu, and Ingrid Caven, Violanta is certainly a singular work that can really only described as Schmid-esque as it is just too idiosyncratic and unmistakably a work of the director to be described as anything else. In fact, in terms of themes and its period setting, I can only really superficially compare it to John Huston’s swansong The Dead (1987), although Schmid’s film is indubitably a more intricate, quixotic, nuanced, aesthetically enterprising, and all-around superior work and I say that as someone that is appreciates both films and filmmakers.  Personally, I would go so far as to describe Schmid's film as a marvelously moribund The Dead for the lethally lovelorn and spiritually necrotic, as a pathos-driven cinematic work that gives nil hope for the hopeless and basks in brutalizing the emotionally brutalized so as to remind the viewer to forget about love lest they risk living perennially like a dead soul among ghosts and phantoms of their past.



 Adapted from the German-language novel Die Richterin (1885) aka The Judge by Swiss wordsmith Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Schmid’s film is set in an enigmatic rural realm that might be described as darkly romantic were it not for the seemingly eternal plague of cross-generational lovelorn misery and crippling regret that consumes the locals as a deceptively melodramatically merciless cinematic work where the viewer is offered nil catharsis and is instead forced to embrace a complete capitulation of the heart and soul. Set during the eighteenth-century in a small Swiss village that borders Italy where Schmid himself spent a major part of his youth, the film is preternaturally supernatural in the sense that ghosts and phantoms freely intermingle with humans that seem even more haunted than their undead compatriots. Notably, virtually all of these ghosts are connected to the terminally unhappy eponymous heroine, who is still haunted by those important individuals from her past that she either loved or loathed and thus can never completely forget. An effortlessly and charming and elegant yet hopelessly morose matriarch that runs a sort of soft dictatorship in her village as a so-called ‘judge,’ the titular protagonist has many skeletons in her closet that she is ultimately reminded of in a phantasmagorical fashion when her estranged son-in-law returns to the village after a virtual lifetime of exile to take part in the wedding of a beautiful young half-sister that he has never even met in a scenario that eventually evolves into incest. Indeed, although featuring beautiful mountain landscapes, truly festive folk clothing and celebrations, and stunningly exotic women of various ages, Violanta is about as merry as a third world autopsy and as heartwarming as a cold rusted dagger to the chest. 



 Not unlike the venomously vengeful lovesick bourgeois bitch played by Maria Casarès in Robert Bresson’s early classic Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) aka The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, the eponymous middle-aged beauty of Schmid's flick wears a mask of great respectability and moral superiority but that there is a sort of subtle fiery foreboding in her eyes that betrays her prestigious place in society as the beloved queen bitch of her village. Like virtually all of Schmid’s great female leads, Violanta is an irreparably damaged diva and she longs for death, so it is only natural that the dead dominate her story and bring back painful memories of murder and heartbreak.  Despite her own serious mistakes in life, Violanta believes it is up to her and her only to tell other people what to do with their lives, so naturally she gets somewhat petrified when her estranged stepson arrives at the village and begins lusting over her engaged daughter.  Featuring Maria Schneider at her most shockingly innocent and virginal, Gérard Depardieu as the sleaziest of psychopathic brutes, Lou Castel as a pathetically impotent dropout, and Lucia Bosé as the most self-assured yet deeply internally tortured of manipulative matriarchs, Violanta is not really a political film but it can certainly be seen as a sort of hyper hermetic allegory for the decline of Europa as a film set in a decidedly dejecting gynocentric realm where bitter women reign, young men are completely emasculated and/or borderline asexual, and old men are virtually nonexistent as most of the men were curiously killed off long ago. In that sense, it is intriguing that the film is set at a sort of crossroads of Europe where the Mediterranean world meets the Germanic world, or as Schmid once explained to Rudolph Jula, “One of the reasons I did the movie was because it meant coming back to the place where I grew up. And it was an opportunity to define some of my so-called cultural identity – which is an in-between position. The place is in the Alps, at a point where rivers run south and north, and it’s on the border between the Latinate and the Germanic world. It’s always been well-travelled country: our roads go back to the Romans, the Etruscans. All the traffic between northern and southern Europe used to cross these mountains. There are also three languages spoken within a very small area: Italian, German and Romansh, a language that goes back to the vulgar Latin spoken in the time of the Roman Empire.” 



 Violanta begins with the ultimately life-changing reading of a letter by a young man living in exile in Venice named ‘Silver’ (Lou Castel) to his dreaded stepmother Donna Violanta (Lucia Bosé), who is the so-called ‘judge’ and benevolent dictator of the small Swiss village that he was seemingly forced to flee from after the quite dubious death of his padre.  Somewhat curiously, Violanta—a woman that seems to fear the mere presence of her stepson, as if he reminds her of seem deep dark secret and/or crime that she committed—wants Silver to come out of exile to attend of the wedding of his half-sister Laura (Maria Schneider), who he has never met but deeply longs for, hence his bizarre disinterest in voluptuous Venetian beauties.  Laura is Violanta's sole child, as well as Silver's sole sibling, albeit they naturally have different mothers. Silver deeply resents Violanta because he blames her for his own biological mother going crazy as a result of his father divorcing her for the titular heroine. Indeed, the woman that Silver deeply loathes is now in complete control of the beloved hometown that his mother was originally supposed to take control of. On top of everything else, Silver’s half-sis is the one that is set to eventually takeover the village that his long dead father once ruled over. As the film eventually reveals near the end, Silver would have even more good reason to deeply detest Violanta if he knew what his conspiring stepmother did to his belated father. What is for sure is that Silver rightly hates Violanta and has no problem admitting as such, though he seems to lack the drive and self-esteem to do anything about it.  Not surprisingly, Silver certainly does entertain the idea of destroying Laura’s wedding by falling in love with her. In the end, it is only Violanta that is destroyed, though it is clearly something she longs for as if she has been dreaming of it her entire life. 



 Throughout the film, Violanta is curiously followed by a morose and painfully vulnerable yet absolutely ravishing, pale moon-faced and redheaded beauty named ‘Alma’ (Ingrid Caven), who has such an innately forsaken demeanor that it seem as if the Devil himself gave her a weekend pass out of hell just to attend the wedding as some form of inordinately cruel punishment. Completely consumed with guilt as a result of supposedly killing her husband and still hopelessly heartbroken that the man she actually loved was killed, Alma is incessantly rebuked by her friend for living in the past.  As revealed in a brief scene shortly after she is first introduced to the viewer, locals believe that Alma acts strange because she was the victim of a harvest moon, but Violanta certainly knows better. As Alma emotionally confesses to Violanta, she believes “now the moment has arrived” and “The payment is due” in regard to the fact she poisoned her husband after their wedding, or as she further explains while clearly burdened with an almost grotesque sense of guilt, “...but no one except me knows about that. I never said anything because of my son. His life would have been a living hell if he had known . . . that his mother is a murderess.” As she later explains to Silver in a haunted cave, Alma is Violanta’s ‘shadow’ (in fact, it can be argued she is the heroine’s sort of Jungian ‘shadow aspect’), as she candidly expresses all the pain, guilt, and lovesickness that has also plagued the titular heroine for so many years. Indeed, when she notices that Alma has committed suicide by hanging herself during Laura’s wedding party, Violanta decides it is time to end her own life and does so by drinking poisoned wine. Notably, Violanta’s one-true-love ‘Adrian’ (Raúl Gimenez) was very knowledgeable about poisons and taught her enough about the subject to poison both her husband ‘Simon’ (François Simon) and eventually herself. While Violanta stoically states to Alma, “Memories are of no use. As are confessions,” it is ultimately the eponymous heroine’s miserable memories and confession to her daughter that give her the strength she needs to finally commit self-slaughter.



 As depicted in rather ghostly flashback scenes, Violanta was forced to marry her belated hubby Simon after her sleazy brother ‘Fortunat’ (Gérard Depardieu)—a boorish psychopath that seemed to love lurking around seedy bars—literally gambled her away during a drunken game of cards. On top forcing her to marry a greedy old fart against her will, Fortunat also murdered Violanta’s lover Adrian while they were lovingly embraced in a strikingly sick act of tragic poetic violence that seems to have turned the heroine into the cold conspiring bitch that she is today. When Adrian’s ghost randomly appears the night before her daughter's wedding, Violanta does not declare her love to him but instead immediately attacks him, stating, “I assumed that you had found peace. How meaningless! A dead man dreaming about life at night. That’s not possible, Adrian,” but he replies, “One needs a lot of time in order to die. Look out the window! You can see nothing but tormented shadows.” In fact, Violanta—a woman that prides herself on her own personal independence and capacity to rule—is such a cold and irrational cunt that she blames Adrian, as opposed to her demented brother Fortunat, for being murdered and causing the horrific premature end of their lurid love affair, stating, “But you were a coward, just like the other men. My brother intimidated you like he did with them. My God, how much I loved you! I wanted to runaway with you. No matter where. Far away from the valley. But you were afraid of me.” Of course, Violanta’s callous words reveal that she is nothing short of an emotionally erratic misandrist, so it should be no surprise that she established her own mountain matriarchy where most men merely act as meek servants. In fact, Violanta also strategically setup her daughter Laura’s marriage to a groveling beta-bitch named David (Luciano Simioni) specifically because he is “sensitive” and quite unlike her dead husband and deadly dipsomaniac brother.  Indeed, denied true love herself, Violanta has no problem denying her daughter the same thing.  Of course, unlike her arrogant old fart husband Simon, David is at least a young pansy pushover that little Laura can boss around.  A seasoned ice queen that has not gotten over the death of her true love, Violanta now looks at men as a means to an end and nothing more.



 While it does not seem like they are particularly bothered by the taboo of incest as demonstrated by the fact that they make out (and possibly make love) in the countryside not long after meeting for the very first time, Silver and Laura are not actually half-siblings, or so the latter eventually learns upon eavesdropping on her mother.  Indeed, as revealed towards the end of the film, Laura is not the daughter of Violanta’s dead husband Simon, but her murdered true love Adrian.  Indeed, when Violanta encounters the ghost of her dead husband, she hatefully boasts, “You weren’t as lucky as you thought when you gambled for me. You didn’t win me. You won my hate” and then reveals that she poisoned him and that Laura is actually “Adrian’s child” and not his. Unfortunately, Laura witnesses this conversation, though she cannot see the ghost that her mother is ostensibly speaking to. Notably, Laura does not seem particularly disturbed by the revelation that Silver is not her biological half-sibling and that Simon is not her real father, as if she is fully aware of her mother's deep treachery and lies.  Of course, by cuckolding Simon and murdering him before she could find out her dirty little secret, Violanta was able to secure a great future for her daughter. Despite her great airs of calm sophistication and happiness, Violanta has been more or less metaphysically dead ever since the death of her great love Adrian and she has simply dedicated her life since then to providing a secure future for her daughter, so it only seems natural that she commits suicide right after Laura gets married as her motherly mission has been accomplished and thus she has no other reason to live. Naturally, it is only fittingly that she kills herself the same exact way that she murdered her husband by consuming poison after her daughter’s wedding in what ultimately seems to be a somewhat morbid form of penance. On the other hand, Violanta does not all seem to regret committing mariticide and her suicide seems to be more influenced by a virtual lifetime of heartsickness than homicidal guilt. As for Laura and her ‘brother’ Silver, one can only guess, but it seems that their (pseudo)incestuous affair concluded before it even really began, which is arguably the real tragedy of the film.  In the end, Laura seems to have no problem with settling for matrimonial mediocrity over the ostensible half-brother that she clearly loves, though one suspects that she will eventually grow to be just as cold and bitter as her emotionally barren progenitor.




 Notably, as opposed to being a sort of stereotypical quasi-Freudian celluloid turd where sex and romance is depicted in a pathological or psychoanalytic fashion (incidentally, Freud was somewhat obsessed with Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's source novella and referenced it in his early writings and lectures as an example of a ‘pathological,’ as opposed to psychological, work), Violanta depicts the world of love as a sort of forsaken realm plagued by tragic romantic destiny, or as auteur Daniel Schmid once explained himself in an interview, “Yes, there’s a certain fatalism about the story. And I love legends, they’re what remain at the very end, and no one cares about the real truth. Everyone’s fate is predetermined from the beginning, as if they were under a spell. There are no genuine couples, only impossible ones. And the main characters live with people from the past, the dead are sometimes more present than the living.” In fact, not unlike many of Schmid’s greatest cinematic works, the film has an undeniably timeless quality and might be best described as an aberrant anti-fairytale as directed by a sort of strangely cynical ‘romantic pessimistic’ that is just as dubious of love and its nuances and intricacies as he is obscenely obsessed with it. Of course, being a gay man, Schmid (who curiously cast his “first great love” Raúl Gimenez as the titular’s heroine’s dead lover) had a somewhat warped and arguably ressentiment-driven view of heterosexual love, as if it was something he deeply longed for but knew he could never really have.

One also cannot forget that Schmid strongly identified with women and lived vicariously through them via his filmic heroines, so it should be no surprise that he personally exhibited some of the less flattering character traits associated with women, namely a talent for covert emotional and psychological manipulation. Indeed, as Schmid’s longtime cinematographer Renato Berta explained in the documentary Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense (2010) co-directed by Pascal Hofmann and Benny Jaberg in regard to the filmmaker’s somewhat Fassbinder-esque tendencies, “There’d be conflicts where I’d ask myself: ‘What will happen now? This will be dramatic!’ He had a fierce, awful, on-set argument with Ingrid Caven. It was very severe. He kicked the make-up table so that it fell over. ‘You’re a whore!’ And that was really how he was: A sort of subconscious manipulator. He was always playing games and if you couldn’t distance yourself at times you’d find yourself . . . in situations that seemed totally complicated, and you’d think, there’s no way out. Then he himself would show you the way out. At least, at times. In this regard, then, he had an elegance that few possess.”  Indeed, the way Berta describes Schmid makes it seem as if the eponymous heroine of Violanta is a vaugely autobiographical character of sorts, at least in the psychological sense.




 Also in the doc Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense, Teutonic avant-garde maestro Werner Schroeter explained in regard to his longtime friend and fellow ‘queen’ Schmid, “Daniel saw a diva in everyone. He even tried to sell his aunt as an odd diva. Daniel was a diva ddict. They were hidden everywhere, and you only had to bring this out in order to draw forth this artificiality and create a diva’s pseudo-immortality.” Undoubtedly, out of all of Schmid’s films, Violanta features the director’s most fully realized and unforgettable diva in the form of Italian Neorealist legend Lucia Bosé who rules over an exceedingly feminine realm of not only the night, moon, nature, and the maternal, but also masks, sophistry, underhandedness, formlessness, and the daemonic.  In short, the film is deliciously demonically Delphic in its innate femininity to the point of expressing the gynocentric as something that is gorgeously grotesque in a sick and tragic sort of way.  Depicting a sort of quasi-mystical and matriarchal pastoral mono no aware microcosm where the acceptance of lovelorn misery by the heroine highlights both the innate emotional strength and callousness associated with the so-called fairer sex, the film ultimately reveals Schmid’s strange respect for the perennial enigma that is femininity. Surely, Schmid’s film revealed that Italian sage Julius Evola was right when he wrote in Eros and the Mysteries of Love: The Metaphysics of Sex (1958) in regard to the devilishly dichotomous traits of the female sex, “A Persian legend indicates the ingredients of which a woman is composed as ‘the hardness of a diamond, the sweetness of honey, the cruelty of a tiger, the warm brightness of a fire, and the coolness of snow.’ These ambivalences, the same as those met with in the archetype of the Divine Woman, lie at the basis of another set of traits in feminine psychology: the coexistence of a disposition toward pity and a disposition toward a special cruelty. Lombroso and Ferrero observed some time ago how woman is simultaneously more pitying and yet more cruel than man, for her capacity for a loving protection and compassion is often accompanied by a lack of feeling, ruthlessness, and destructive violence that, once let loose, take a far greater hold on her than they do a man; history bears witness to this in collective forms when rebellions and lynching have taken place.” Indeed, when Violanta hatefully rebukes the ghost of her great love that died in her arms, one cannot help but reminded of Evola’s words, “Women, wrote Martin, are ruthless about the evil they do to men they love.”  After all, even in death, the heroine cannot forgive her beloved for being brutally murdered at the hands of her own brother simply because he loved her too much.

No doubt, I would be lying if I did not admit that Violanta made me seriously ponder the dark enigma of covert female psychological violence and the countless wars, wrecked nations, ruined lives, and destroyed love affairs that have occurred throughout history as a result of some conspiring bitch getting an itch to tell some monstrous lie.  Indeed, as demonstrated by everything from Shakespeare to popular TV shows like Game Of Thrones, such craven feminine behavior is a timeless theme of Western culture, yet few individual men want to admit to themselves that women are capable of such things, hence why women like the titular heroine of Schmid's film are able to so easily getaway with them. Of course, as Otto Weininger once wrote, “No men who really think deeply about women retain a high opinion of them; men either despise women or they have never thought seriously about them.”  After all, even Schmid, who loved women and their idiosyncrasies, could not help but portray their most loathsome traits.  Undoubtedly, the difference between Schmid and the average heterosexual man is that the belated filmmaker admired women for many of the same reasons that straight men simply cannot stomach them aside from only a strictly sexual basis.


Despite is unequivocal worship of dark feminine traits, Schmid was by no means some sort of degenerate feminist leftist cuck, at least not in any typical sense.  Indeed, as Schmid stated during a contentious press release for his first feature Tonight or Never—a film that subtly satires the mindless stupidity of the German 68er-Bewegung student movement of the late-1960s—in regard to his disgust with Occidental decadence and the decline of Europa in general, “I live in a decadent era. That is my private belief. I believe that I live in a late chapter of Western history. I have no conception of how things might continue.”  In fact, Schmid's early films were oftentimes, rather absurdly, labelled “fascist” by certain left-wing film critics, or as the auteur explained himself when asked by Rudolph Jula if he was reproached for being a supposed bourgeois artist, “Yes, to the point of being accused of celebrating bourgeois cultural fascism.  That was a term being hurled at everyone at the time.  Everyone was a fascist, apart from oneself of course.  But all these words have lost their meaning today, like communism.”  Of course, to these commie critics' very minor credit, Schmid was clearly a serious artist with a deep respect for European high kultur who was not afraid to direct films based on novels written by fascist authors like Hécate (1982) or to make ostensibly racially insensitive films like Shadow of Angels featuring a character simply named “The Rich Jew.”  As far as fascistic melodrama is concerned, Schmid's films make a classic Veit Harlan flick like Opfergang (1944) seem like a quirky romantic-comedy by comparison in terms of sheer tragic sorrow and abject despair.

Undoubtedly, Violanta is arguably the most immaculate cinematic example of what Douglas Sirk—an auteur that Schmid considered such a great hero and artistic influence that he paid tribute to with the fairly worthwhile documentary Mirage de la vie (1983) aka Imitation of Life—when he described the “impossible situation” of melodrama.  Completely denying the viewer any sense of catharsis while ensnaring them in his own deep dark abyss of rather cryptically expressed sexual and emotional desires, Schmid managed to assemble a film that is among the darkest and most foreboding of cinema history when it comes to the metaphysics of sex and the perils of true love.  Indeed, to watch Violanta is to be temporarily forsaken by Schmid's hopelessly haunted Hades-like homo soul.  Personally, I cannot think of another film where a somnambulist-like redheaded Fräulein inspires romantic fantasies of suicide and where an incestuous brother-sister romance seems like the most natural relationship in the world, but then again I am a sucker for Schmid  and the sort of ominously yet soothingly oneiric cinematic majesty that his films offer.



-Ty E

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