Emily Atef on '3 Days in Quiberon' and Its "Woman in Crisis"

Emily Atef - Getty - H 2018
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

The Berlin native discusses why she chose to examine the troubled life of screen legend Romy Schneider in her competition entry.

Born in Berlin and raised in Los Angeles and Paris by Iranian-Armenian parents, Emily Atef moved back to study filmmaking at Berlin’s DFFB. It is in Germany where she has largely made her career as a filmmaker, exploring stories of women in crisis. For her latest feature, Atef zooms in on perhaps the most famous woman in crisis in European cinema: Romy Schneider. Already an international star when she was 15, Schneider went on to work with Orson Welles and Luchino Visconti and became a fixture of French cinema. But her life was also the stuff of scandal — a very public divorce, multiple affairs — and tragedy, including the suicide of her husband and the brutal accident that killed her 14-year-old son when he fell and impaled himself on the spiked fence surrounding her home. In 3 Days in Quiberon, Atef looks at the tragic icon through the lens of the last interview Schneider gave, in 1981, at a rehab clinic on the coast of Brittany. Atef tells THR that the film is neither biopic nor documentary. But it does have a message for the #MeToo era.

Why did you want to tell the story of Schneider’s final interview? 
Well, the idea didn’t come from me. It came from a French producer, who was a friend of (3 Days in Quiberon star) Marie Baumer. Because she looks so much like Romy, Marie has been asked to play the role since she was around 16. But she never wanted to; she thought, “How can you play an icon?” And she doesn’t believe in biopics. I don’t either. As an audience member, I’m always extremely frustrated by biopics — trying to tell a whole life in 90 minutes, jumping nonstop, using two or three actors to play the kid, the teenager and the adult — it just frustrates me. But the producer, he found this book with the interview from Michael Jurgs and the photos from Robert Lebeck. They looked at the pictures and read the interview. And they said: “That’s it. It has to be about those three days in Quiberon and the last interview she gave.”

How did you go about researching the story?
I started with the pictures, Robert Lebeck’s photos. I just typed in “Romy Schneider” and “Quiberon” into the Internet and they came up. And when I saw those pictures they touched me so extremely because they weren’t of the star, of the mythical Romy Schneider. It was totally the person. They’re totally unpretentious. She’s not even wearing makeup. Then I got a hold of Michael Jurgs’ interview. And it’s like nothing I’d ever read. It’s an interview with one of the biggest celebrities of her time, at the height of her fame and for a huge paper — for Die Stern, which was like Life magazine in Germany — but it’s almost like somebody talking with their absolute closest friend or even psychotherapist. You have one of the biggest stars of the world and her first words are: “I’m an unhappy, 42-year-old woman and my name is Romy Schneider.” That’s where it began.

Did you speak to Michael Jurgs?
He was my main source! Because he was the youngest, he had the best memory. And because he’s a journalist, he likes to talk and tell stories. He’d talk about Romy then go off on a tangent, talking about what he was thinking at the time, what he was feeling. And I went to the hotel and I met the young concierge, who is not young anymore, and the main cook who was an assistant then, and they told me stories.

Does it interest you what is fact and what is fiction in the film?
No, not at all. Because I wasn’t making a film about the life of Romy Schneider. This is a zoom. In German, you’d say it’s a zustandsbeschreibung, a situational report. It’s a description of her emotional and mental state at that time. That’s what interested me. Of course, it’s fascinating that it was Romy Schneider, one of the most famous women alive, because it made the stakes so high. But it really could be any woman.

What state was Schneider in when she did this interview?
She’d basically hit rock-bottom. She didn’t know that afterward she’s going to hit it much deeper. Nobody would have thought a year later, her son would die and three months after that she’d be dead. But she was already having a really difficult time. She was a mother and she loved her children. But she couldn’t be the housewife. Her work, filming, was the only place where she felt at home.

This is a very speculative thing, but what do you think Schneider would make of the #MeToo movement? 
Well, she was a very, very big flirt herself and had apparently a great sexual appetite for men. Though Lebeck told me it was more about not having to wake up alone. But I can’t imagine she wouldn’t speak out against people using their power to abuse somebody that’s weaker than them. She wouldn’t be part of the Catherine Deneuve crowd [of apologists]. She was a very strong woman and I think she would have raised her voice against abuse by powerful male figures. I would hope so.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 19 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.