Étude in Black: Romy Schneider in Yves Saint Laurent in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

Romy Schneider is glorious in Les innocents aux mains sales. And although this article will mainly cover the role her Yves Saint Laurent clothes play in the film, that characterisation refers first and foremost to her performance. The extreme emotions she’s capable of is transfixing. When Romy smiles, the entire screen lights up. She possessed a childish innocence that was liberating and all-encompassing. You dissolve in a radiant smile and lightness, too, when you watch her. And when turmoil takes over, everything shows up in her eyes. Her sadness is devastating, it’s like you are at once aware of the most troubled soul that goes down so deep that it can never be cured.

Innocents with Dirty Hands starts out in familiar Claude Chabrol territory: bourgeois mores (on the backdrop of a superb Saint Tropez villa), a wealthy husband, a young wife, the temptation of a young lover, the exercise of power, Hitchcockian impulses. Romy is Julie, the young wife of a retired business man, Louis Wormser (Rod Steiger). He has a heart condition, which fuels his frustrations and drinking. Julie is quick to take a lover, their neighbour, a young and broke writer, Jeff (Paulo Giusti), and after scheming murder, everything takes a turn towards the unexpected, more than once, and she goes through a whole lot of transformations.

If Chabrol seems to prepare us for a Hitchcockian kind of suspense, he quickly deviates from form, as the film is essentially a portrait of a woman. “Certainly I’m happy right now making these films about murder. My interest isn’t in solving puzzles, but in studying human behavior,” the filmmaker remarked in an interview in the 1970s, during a period of his revived career, when his films took on a new direction. Focusing on the lives and fates of women is another element that’s part of the familiar Chabrol territory, but this time he takes it further. He chooses to show us a woman completely isolated in a world of men, trying to navigate a series of relationships and confrontations with a number of different males roaming around (she has no interaction with any other woman throughout the duration of the entire film), never fitting into the same mold as them; they are practically the watchmen of her life: policemen, lawyer, magistrate, banker, financial advisor, and of course, her husband and her lover. They all have ready-made ideas about Julie. And Julie is certainly no pure-hearted heroine, as none of Chabrol’s female characters is. She is independent but domineering, intrepid but selfish, rapacious but vulnerable. But she is also more than what meets the eye and more than any of these men make of her. She is unpredictable and complicated and this makes for an intriguing study of the psychology of a woman. That’s what the real suspense is about, trying to figure her out.

And who else than Romy could give us a more complicated mystery to solve? I am reminded of artist Andreas Reimann’s portrait of Romy, the ‘Romy Classic’, and his words: “This face, what I call the ‘Romy Classic’ never let go of me. Is it sad? Filled with pride or arrogance? Does she have a slight smile on her lips…? Her mysterious face has often been compared with the look of Mona Lisa.” Romy’s Julie is a character capable of love, murder, hate, passion, redemption, forgiveness, who lives her life according to her own morality and to her own timing. She is right or wrong by different canons of society and according to the different men she crosses paths with, but her right and wrong are of a different kind and come at a different time and it’s transformative, revealing and perturbing. She moves in her own ocean of freedom and in her own kind of independence.

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

When I wrote about Romy wearing Yves Saint Laurent in Claude Sautet’s César et Rosalie, I said that it was the character of Rosalie that came very close to Romy’s personality, and, dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, Romy was the personification of the modern woman. I still believe that. Dressed in an Yves Saint Laurent capsule collection, from trench coat to pea coat, welcoming change and not settling for what others expect of her and not afraid to break free from the dependence on men, she navigates the challenges and freedoms of the modern woman.

When it comes to Yves Saint Laurent’s collaboration with cinema, it’s always his long-term relationship with Catherine Deneuve, his muse, model and close friend for decades, that is brought to attention, but I believe that Romy Schneider – Yves Saint Laurent is the true testament to modernity in fashion, and her character in Innocents with Dirty Hands may be different than the one in César et Rosalie, but her clothes once again attest to a type of female modernity and independence. Taking for example Saint Laurent’s clothes for Deneuve in Belle de jour, they are instrumental in disengaging the character of Severine from the discourse of femininity and beauty created around the male subject, while Romy’s clothes in Innocents, on the contrary, don’t deny femininity and signify desire and sensuality in relation to the female body first and foremost, not just to class and exclusivity. And that’s where their (the clothes’) power (and the character’s power) resides. Catherine Deneuve was more of an icon in Belle de jour, Romy Schneider was more of a woman in Innocents with Dirty Hands. Schneider’s Julie does not repress her sensuality, on the contrary, she is trying to make everything work for her while embracing her femininity as a powerful tool. Her husband is trying to hold on to her with his money and she owes her entry into the world of the rich to him, but she remains independent of mind. She has made this world her own, she is an integral part of it. She is neither an object woman nor a submissive wife.

Her clothes here are truly styles created for women. Even when he drew inspiration from the menswear in his fashion collections (the pin-stripe suit, the knickerbocker suit, the safari jacket, the blazer come to mind), Saint Laurent wasn’t after downplaying femininity, just the opposite, he wanted to emphasise it, going so far as to suggest that “a woman who dresses like a man – in tuxedo, blazer or sailor suit – has to be infinitely feminine in order to wear clothes which were not meant for her.” He liked to accentuate the femininity of these masculine looks by adding details that were quintessentially feminine, like the see-through blouse under a tuxedo, or the pussycat bow on a buttoned-up blouse. He celebrated the woman, not from the perspectives of the appropriation of men’s styles for women, but of femininity in all its distinction and beauty.

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

The opening of the film is quite inédite. A naked Romy is sunbathing in the garden of her Saint Tropez villa and a kite is landing on her posterior. The owner of the kite, a young and handsome man, comes to reclaim it and so the two are introduced. The evening of their meeting, the man is invited to dinner where he meets the husband. Drunk, Louis retreats to his room, and so Julie and Jeff commence their affair. The first black dress of the film – the black dress, the symbol of feminine and seduction, but also the symbol of imminent tragedy – that she is wearing is truly her first attire we’ve seen her in so far although this is the second sequence she appears in. It establishes her position and feelings, but Chabrol skillfully and quickly reflected her availability with Julie’s nudity from the very first shots, presenting Julie without the costumes that define her socially and as an image. The evening gown is a very revealing, sexy dress, with jewelled straps across the back and following the line of the body. A distant elegance and both an unattainable lust and boiling passion are evoked. We see her in a caftan afterwards, in day-light, an YSL signature nonetheless, when her husband surprises her with a new car, a beautiful Datsun 260, offering us a glimpse into her pleasurable life as a woman showered with gifts from her husband.

This personality changes radically when we see her again, one more time the triangle at dinner time. It’s the fatidic night and the black dress she is wearing is the one I initially considered writing solely about. It is a long dress with long sleeves, a collar and a plunging neckline. It has a straight cut, with a slit down the leg. It looks statuesque, further elongated by the killer heels (pun intended) and Julie’s hair tied in a chignon. It’s edgy, it speaks of hidden thoughts and an unperturbed sexuality, a woman used to exercising power over men. The way she looks in that scene by Louis’ bed, I don’t think I have ever seen anything similar, she is like the weapon of the crime herself.

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

The day after, she is again in a caftan, a luxurious piece that suits her, seamlessly integrated in Chabrol’s impeccable mise-en-scène, when she meets the policemen. From now on, with the exception of the puritanical white dress she puts on in a key moment in the film (her position is still one of strength, even if the transformation from unfaithful wife and attempting murderess into a devoted wife gives way to her inner contradictions about the two men in her life, contradictions that will ultimately decide her fate – “I will forgive you as you will forgive me,” Louis tells her), black, or variations there, of becomes her uniform. The navy blue skirt and blouse she wears when she mails the letter to her lover borders black. The tweed skirt and jacket in tones of grey reveal a black turtleneck underneath when she takes off her jacket.

But finally, it’s a black calf-length dress, with a full skirt and long sleeves when she finds out the truth about her husband. She’s in the same dress when, a little later on, she finds out the truth about her lover, culminating in an ordeal of an incident. I’ve always loved a long-sleeved dress with an A-shaped full skirt that falls mid-calf. When worn with high heels, it emphasises such a beautiful movement of the female body. It is not the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, nor the masterfully simplistic Halston dress that I find the most liberating and atemporele, but this dress. It would only feel fair for Yves Saint Laurent to reclaim it. “I can not work without the movement of the human body,” Saint Laurent would comment his need to design on real models. “A dress is not static, it has rhythm.” And Chabrol makes sure we see Romy move around in her dress, all turbulence and conflicted feelings underneath in motion.

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

The sequence before the closing shot (and before the final black dress) finds her composed and resigned in a sober black roller neck. She is wearing a chignon again. She is being accused of something she is not guilty of and pleads with her lawyer, Jean Rochefort’s Maître Légal (there’s also humour in Chabrol, but he only makes fun of the justice departments), about the inconsistency of the judicial system.

The lawyer – Oh! The inconsistency of women!
Julie – When I wanted to kill my husband, nothing was done to me, and when I did everything to save him, they will punish me!
Lawyer – These are the twists and turns of justice. (…) The truth is what people want to believe, and remember that it is righteousness done by men, for men.

It’s the second time in the film when Jean Rochefort steals the scene (his in Innocents is one of the finest supporting roles in cinema), but we mustn’t easily forget the act Julie has conducted, having led all the way the dance between her and her husband and her lover. She was ultimately torn and trapped between the two. Physically free but mentally locked in her own duality.

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst



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