PRINT September 1993

Daniel Schmid’s La Paloma

A CASINO IN the south of France. A suicide at the blackjack table. A magician fanning a hand of cards. A hermaphrodite in a laurel wreath and toga reclines on a Recamier couch, with back titles: La Force de l’Imagination. An ancient party, her feathered headdress vibrant against the velvet theater curtains, singing. “You came along, from out of nowhere.” Beautiful dreams, beautiful schemes from nowhere. . . . And then Viola appears, the chimerical essence of fatale.

An epicene young man, alone at a table with his glass of champagne, falls in love with the mysterious singer. She has tuberculosis. They marry. A honeymoon at various spas, where she is cured. On a train to the races, he looks up from his newspaper and tells her: Eva Perón is dead. Oh yes, she sighs.

At his family château in Switzerland, boredom sets in.

She has an affair with his best friend, who refuses to run away with her. She becomes spectral, withdrawn. A year later she is dead. The two men read her will together. Viola poisoned herself, slowly. She wishes to be exhumed, her remains to be put in an urn in the family crypt. They dig her up. The poison she took preserved her body exactly as it was in life. The widower is forced, then, to slash her corpse into small pieces. We are whisked back to the casino, where he still sits with his champagne, watching her sing: “Shanghai, Shanghai, longing for you, all the day through. . . .”

In the blink of an eye, a magnificent and terrible romance has blossomed and died: what we would call a great love. When you want someone crazily, whether it’s based on his looks, the way he behaves, his smell, whatever, and the person is one you cannot, finally, have, even if you come to possess him for a time psychologically or physically (but especially if you don’t), you can fill the world with this desire: enough, at least, that when it ends you have a story with a legible arc, one that will feature myriad exalting and pathetic details.

La Paloma is a story every human person lives at least once. If I return again and again to this early film of Daniel Schmid, it’s because I have lived this story a few times, irrationally, against my better judgment. I recognize the delirium of the process this film describes as identical from person to person. The warp of an obsession, the way it grabs its victims out of the current, so that any conversation becomes a pretext to discuss the Loved One, is boring. Only the details are intriguing: the small scar below his right ear, for example. For the lover it’s a question not of interest but of necessity.

La Paloma contains the voluptuous plenum of romantic madness as well as the deflating revelation that losing yourself in another person is always a story that happens in a champagne glass, in the blink of an eye.

It’s possible to be a citizen of this age, to approach all human problems in entirely existential terms, and still succumb to the feverish solipsism of desire. As the advice of perfection, one can say that desire is bad, pleasure good. Certainly yearning becomes an unattractive state when it becomes utterly unreasonable; having said this, I must add that the person who has seamlessly rationalized desire into wishing only for what he can definitely have is, in a sense, already dead.

La Paloma is essentially the same story as Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche, 1986, or Paul Vecchiali’s Drugstore Romance, 1983, or my novel Horse Crazy: a story that mimics conventions of 19th-century opera, in which the heroine is inevitably sacrificed in the fifth act, and the hero is left with a story to tell. These recent works are compromised by modernity, contemporary consciousness; one doesn’t die for love anymore, except in fantasy, and soon emotion itself will seem a ridiculous extravagance, a relic like Tosca.

Eva Perón is dead. Outside is the bitter truth of events, mortality, duty, wars, our bodies in the world, systems that control our choices. Inside are feelings: the craving for maternal warmth, our childhood dreams and wishes that we cling to and fight for at the expense of all else.

I like Daniel Schmid’s idea that we are all private radio stations transmitting on our own frequencies, sometimes audible to each other, sometimes not. Personally, few blue-ribbon cultural products occupy my consciousness with anything like the force of my own imagination or experience, and those that do, like La Paloma, seldom belong to the upper reaches of any established canon. I am indifferent to any argument that a “greater” work should affect me more profoundly, or that there exists a legitimate authority to declare one thing “major” and another “minor.” In the end we have only our experiences and we feel them with the particularity of monadic creatures.

Why this film and not another? The intense perfection of its metaphor, possibly; something gorgeous in its refusal to coalesce around a conclusion that is less than hallucinatory; the sublimity of Ingrid Caven, whose voice and persona have always evoked for me the most sardonic and melancholy reflections.

Romance involves us in abjection and absurdity. Beyond a point we have no choice about it. We do violence to ourselves by pursuing it and equal violence by squashing our feelings. It’s a souvenir of the last century, and not the worst one. The protagonist of La Paloma is a dull man who becomes interesting through his infatuation. For one moment in his life he is truly alive. I can’t answer the question of whether his fixation is “worth it,” and because I can’t answer it, La Paloma continues to haunt me as the paradigm of certain disappointments.

Gary Indiana