Maria Schneider, a French actress best known for her controversial performance in Last Tango in Paris, passed away from cancer in February at the young age of 58. Following her performance in Bertolucci’s controversial film, her personal life was torn asunder by drug addiction, sexual confusion, and an attempted suicide. Several obituaries have posited that Bertolucci and Last Tango were responsible for her downward spiral. Below, Franklin Laviola reflects on the great actress’ life, her place in film history, and the ethical questions surrounding the performance of explicit acts on camera.
I first encountered Maria Schneider on a lazy June afternoon. It was the summer before going to college, and that morning I had participated in my first (and only) game of paintball, out on the East End of Long Island. The event, organized by my very spirited AP Physics teacher Ed Baumann, was designed (I imagine) to reward us recent graduates with a chance to finally let off some steam, while also providing us with a hyper-real lesson in projectiles and vectors. All fun and learning aside, the game left me drained and, worse, emblazoned with multiple welts of varying sizes, scattered across my chest, all of them quite painful. A good friend gave me a ride home and on the way I noticed a copy of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, resting on his backseat in a sterile Blockbuster Video case. I was already a fan of Bertolucci, having seen The Last Emperor at a young age and The Conformist the year before, very late one night on Showtime or Cinemax. I knew about Last Tango in Paris and was familiar with its place in film history — a notorious early ‘70s art house hit bordering on pornography (by most expert and layperson accounts), made all the more shocking in that it starred one of the world‘s biggest movie stars. I had seen several sexy stills in film books (the internet was still in its incipient stages and more extensive content was not yet readily available), but never the film itself. I was certainly eager to see it, but, according to my standards, it had to be in its proper uncut and X- rated form, when I eventually did. The only known copy, circulating in my immediate area, however, was the R-rated edition and it was presently at my fingertips, staring up at me, and waiting. For whatever the reason — tremendous curiosity, a bit of envy that my friend had gotten to it first, post- paintball delirium — I defied my principles and gave into temptation.
I had the house to myself, but only for a few hours before my mother returned home from work. Quickly, I grabbed an icepack from the freezer, popped the cassette into the VCR, sprawled myself out on the living room couch, and pressed “play.” Just as I noticed that the welts on my chest were now uniformly enormous, Last Tango in Paris began. From the very first moments of the Francis Bacon paintings, accompanied by Gato Barbieri’s jazz score, immediately followed by Marlon Brando’s primal scream under the elevated train, I was hooked. What began as a ridiculous day had suddenly transitioned into something more profound. It was all there on the tv screen — Vittorio Storaro’s brilliant cinematography, the shocking red of Brando’s wife’s blood in the bathtub post-suicide, the rawness and violence of the emotions.
And then there was Maria Schneider. With her round pixie face, innocent eyes, and heavenly body, she was a vision. Brando’s angst might have been the identification point and his performance nothing less than spellbinding throughout, but Schneider’s beauty and uniquely natural presence contributed immensely to the film’s power. By the time it had ended that afternoon, with Schneider shooting Brando dead, I was completely exhilarated and had forgotten all about my welts and their silly origins.
Last Tango in Paris would haunt me for the rest of that summer and follow me to college. In fact, early that fall, one of the very first purchases I ever made on my extremely limited freshman allowance was an uncut X-rated VHS copy of the film in the basement of Tower Records. I remember strolling down to 66th Street and Broadway one Friday afternoon after class and then walking all the way back to my dorm at sunset, thrilled at my acquisition and the night that lay ahead. I borrowed the floor VCR from the RA on duty and then sat down to watch the film in the empty lounge.
This time around the film’s inexorable flow would not be interrupted. When the “butter scene” arrived, there would be no giant lamp (looking more like a cartoonish red blob), placed on screen to obscure what Bertolucci had intended — a Bacon painting come to life. Crazy how censors prevented ordinary video renters from actually seeing the pivotal act (however taboo) that more or less seals Brando’s fate. The film retained every bit of its power, and, on this second viewing, I took greater notice of the Maria Schneider character’s own story arc and those scenes, involving her filmmaker fiance, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, and her home life. My personal copy of Last Tango in Paris would become something of a prized possession, adorning the bookshelf above my desk, all throughout my college years.
It was during one of my early extended breaks from school that I stumbled upon a copy of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger at my local library. Entering the film thirty minutes in for a fleeting interaction with Jack Nicholson and then returning a half hour later to join him, until the very last shot, Maria Schneider might have had a supporting role, but her presence was just as significant here, as it was in Last Tango in Paris. In charting the Nicholson character’s trek across Africa and Spain, under the newly assumed identity of an arms dealer, Antonioni’s film was abstract and deliberate, despite playing off of a number of conventions in the international espionage genre. Identified in the credits, as simply “Girl,” Schneider was less glamorous, but her beauty had now taken on a more mysterious quality. She was also more subdued, even as she urged Nicholson on and chided him for wanting to give up. I wasn’t sure whether she was his guardian angel or a femme fatale in disguise as one.
This past January, I was fortunate enough to catch a brand new 35 mm print of Last Tango in Paris, when it screened, as part of the Bertolucci retrospective, at MOMA. I had never seen the film on the big screen before and had not revisited the work in over ten years — since my sophomore year of college, when I wrote a paper (some nonsense about Lacanian spaces) on it for a film theory class. From Brando’s opening cry, “Fucking God!” (or is it, “Fucking Cock!”?), to Schneider’s muttering variations of the same four sentences, to herself, in the final shot, the film had lost none of its disturbing power. Storaro’s play with light, shadow, and color had never looked more vivid and more masterfully executed, while Bertolucci’s astonishing camera choreography and intuitive sense of movement, attuned to every intimate detail of his actors’ work, reinforced his position as the cinema’s greatest sensualist. On the big screen, it was now obvious that Schneider more than holds her own, up against Brando’s heavily-improvised and monumental performance. In that final shot, having just killed Brando in her family’s apartment, her character is stunned, paralyzed with repetition, and Schneider plays it all, like her character is discovering language itself for the very first time. It was just one of many moments in the film, where the nuance and vitality of her own performance leapt off the screen at this spectator.
A month later, on the morning of February 3rd, I awoke to discover that Maria Schneider had passed away at the age of 58. The cause of death was cancer. I was both shocked and deeply affected by this unexpected news.
In the days that followed, I was disappointed to see that a number of obituaries took an oddly accusatory tone, seeing Schneider’s death as an opportunity to slam Bertolucci and his landmark film and portray her as the ultimate victim. A piece by film critic David Thomson in The New Republic, entitled “Remembering Maria Schneider: did film ruin controversial actress’s life?,” in particular, exemplified this problematic angle. Thomson wrote:
“It’s hard not to think the essential purpose of Last Tango in Paris wasn’t to take advantage of Maria Schneider to get our dollars. I don’t mean to say the film lacks anguish, or that Brando isn’t riveting in it. But I’m not sure it was worth doing if it ruined a life.”
Any argument that attempts to establish a direct connection, a concrete cause and effect, between the film and her death, thirty-nine years after the fact, needs to be seen for what it is — ludicrous and a total contrivance of journalism. Are Thomson and others also not aware of how deeply condescending to Schneider, such a premise actually is? After all, what they are suggesting is that those years in between were meaningless and unproductive for her and that her acting career had simply ended in failure. On the contrary, during that lengthy period of time, Schneider acted in over forty films, and for a number of respected auteurs (besides Antonioni), including Jacques Rivette, Marco Bellocchio, Philippe Garrel, and Franco Zeffirelli. She had also been in recovery from drug addiction, since the early 1980s.
And so, the question remains, how did Bertolucci come to be portrayed as her executioner? There are those skeptical critics, who simply begrudge any filmmaker, who has a phenomenal box-office success, like Bertolucci had with Last Tango in Paris, and there are those, who play it safe and easy, preferring to cite Schneider’s nudity in the film as proof of his misogyny, while ignoring the emotional and thematic complexity of the film. And then there are those opportunistic critics, who dismiss Bertolucci and the film, as a means of distancing themselves and their own opinions from a famous critic, like Pauline Kael, who led the praise for Last Tango in Paris, upon its premiere in 1972. I imagine many of these critics are also taking their cue from an interview Schneider gave in 2007, in which she dismissed Bertolucci and revealed that the “butter scene” was not originally in the script and that Marlon Brando came up with the idea for it the morning of the shoot. Schneider, who was nineteen when the film was made, said, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”
Such comments from Schneider are indeed troubling and make one realize that anytime a filmmaker asks an actor to perform extreme material on camera, it should always be treated as a delicate matter. Should then the shooting of this particular scene, what would become the most famous scene of (simulated) anal sex in the history of cinema, have been handled differently? I think it could have probably been handled more tactfully and with more sensitivity towards Schneider, off-camera. Should Brando have done an equal amount of frontal nudity over the course of the entire film? Sure. But was Schneider exploited against her will? Furthermore, if an actress really felt raped by a director the first time around, why would she agree to work with him a second time? Schneider did work with Bertolucci again, two years later and at the height of her stardom, on his magnum opus 1900. Bertolucci would go on to fire and replace her, presumably for the same reason Luis Bunuel would have to fire her during the shoot of his That Obscure Object Of Desire in 1977 — her active drug abuse was noticeably affecting her performance. Could it be that her anger and resentment towards Bertolucci, expressed years later, actually stemmed from whatever happened, during the 1900 shoot instead?
There’s a wonderful, lyrical passage in Last Tango in Paris, which occurs approximately 35 minutes into the film. Schneider’s character Jeanne has agreed to participate in a documentary about her life, directed by her fiance, played by Nouvelle Vague avatar Jean-Pierre Leaud. The scene is set at her family’s splendid home in the suburbs of Paris, and Leaud asks her to recall and speak about her childhood on camera. Here, Schneider is more assertive and self-possessed, than in her scenes with Brando’s domineering character, and, this time, it is she, who sets the rules. No matter how much Leaud tries to take control, it is Schneider, who guides the proceedings. The scene is heavily self-referential, as Bertolucci both acknowledges his own directorial role in exposing Schneider on screen and critiques himself and his methods through the foolishness of Leaud‘s manipulation. Watch as Schneider deftly moves from funny, melancholy, guarded, reluctant, sincere, and playful, all while reacting to Leaud’s poses and trivial games. Her character is a complicated being in her own right, and Schneider’s a compelling presence, playing all of these layers with a spontaneity and a total lack of affect. Her performance has not a trace of the mechanical, studied quality of so many actors.
In Antonioni’s The Passenger, Maria Schneider has one of the great ecstatic moments in all of cinema. The scene begins with an interaction between her and her co-star Nicholson in a convertible, and it is clear that the two have great chemistry. When Schneider turns her back to the front seat and spreads her arms out, like wings, we are suddenly reminded of two rhyming gestures from previous scenes in the film — Nicholson’s leaning his upper body out of the window of a cable car in Barcelona and his spreading his arms out, mimicking flight over the blue sea, and her own introduction on the London park bench, in which she leans back, extends her arms across the back of the bench and looks upward at the sky. But Schneider moves the scene beyond this poetic visual motif, as she looks out onto the tree-lined road. Watch her face, as she has an epiphany — for a brief moment, she shares in the thrill of Nicholson’s desire for flight, for an escape from the corporeal world, and then, mysteriously, her expression becomes more serious, subtly grave. Quiet and ambiguous, the film has no big emotions, but reminds us of the ephemeral quality of life. We are souls just passing through.
Maria Schneider excelled, when she starred in Last Tango in Paris and The Passenger, acting opposite two of the medium’s most dominant leading men and for two of its most demanding artists. Whether or not her innocence was sacrificed upon the altar of cinema, is a question, I feel, only the film gods can answer. For now, it’s reassuring to know that her tremendous beauty and talent, along with her radiant femininity and youth, will live on as long as the cinema. Maria Schneider will be one of the medium’s material ghosts and her ghost will always bring me back to that original summer afternoon.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He recently discussed his 20 most anticipated films of 2011. Last Tango In Paris is available on Blu-Ray and DVD; The Passenger is available on DVD.