By Moira Sullivan.
Maria Schneider plays Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris, a young woman who confronts her sadistic attacker Paul, played by a much older Marlon Brando, and shoots him. Schneider sums it up: “I must say that the murder in the end of the film did me much good.” Ironically, Bernardo Bertolucci wrote the part for a young boy. Brando would never have gone through with it and Maria would have had a softer introduction to the world of cinema. In retrospect it was something she would have preferred.
Maria Schneider worked almost every year of her nearly 40-year career. After her debut in Last Tango, which according to corporate media “made her become a drug addict,” it is erroneously claimed: “She never did much after that.” The film with a graphic rape scene of a young woman of 19 became historically associated with the actress.
Instead of being the guardians of history, corporate media distort, package and sell narratives by transforming modern events into mythology. In the case of Maria Schneider, too much fame too soon became the modern tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun.
In reality, according to Schneider, she was terrified of the instant success Last Tango brought her and used drugs to escape. But by the 80s that was over. She met and stayed with the same woman until her death and continued to work in film.
“I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol,” revealed Schneider in 2007. “I wanted to be recognized as an actress, and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.”
Yet Maria Schneider had a long, solid, and productive career. Even if you don’t read French, it’s not hard to appreciate Schneider’s impressive lineage of work. I interviewed Maria Schneider two years before her 50th birthday in Paris. She was beautiful and radiant, the Créteil Films de Femmes guest of honor. We saw her films, and heard her words in a “Master Class.” They need to be remembered: how film is “a tracing of memory”; how women must be recognized as actors and directors; how senior actors must be supported when they are unemployed and impoverished. She was chosen to be Vice-President of “La Roue Tourne,” an organization in Paris designed for this purpose. She told the audience at Créteil that Marcel Carné, director of Les Enfants du Paris (1945) and one of the most important directors of the late 1930s would have died in poverty. “La Roue Tourne” supported him for the last ten years of his life.
Through the years, directors, writers, artists and actors knew of her work and talent in France.
Yet in her early departure, every journalist singles out Last Tango as the tour de force of Schneider’s career, a film Maria did not enjoy making with director Bernardo Bertolucci because of unrealistic dialogue and scenes. He fired her from a role in 1900 (1976), which in hindsight was fortuitous for Schneider. His conceits in Last Tango — costume, makeup, mise-en-scéne — are his failures: all unfairly accredited to Schneider. Brando emerges as the sympathetic hero.
Maria Schneider’s death was announced on February 3. She had long been ill with cancer. Comments about how her looks had changed from the young woman of the film that gave her international attention imply that she was supposed to stay forever young in real life as she was preserved in cinema. Like most young women who mature, she was no longer interesting. Journalists often say that young women with an early hit do nothing “afterwards.” Actresses like ballerinas seem to have a shelf life and many are not able to get good parts after 30. We must recognize this reality when we read the media narratives about Maria Schneider.
New articles with photos of the young Maria side by side with the mature Maria were presented without context in obituaries. Photographs of her induction into the Ordre de Arts et Lettres in July 2010 were taken a mere six months before her death. Standing side be side with her co-star in Merry Go Round (1981), Frédéric Mitterand, the Minister of Culture in France, Maria was impeccably dressed in smart blue, knee-length jacket with blue slacks and crisp white blouse. On her jacket, the medal of knighthood was pinned.
Maria looked tired and must have mustered the strength to be present for her honor. Brigitte Bardot honored her in a letter read at the ceremony. Few journalists outside France covered the story with news of Schneider’s distinction. Photographs from the ceremony without any context received worldwide currency only with her death.
Bardot, Maria Schneider’s confidante through the years, took the vagabond actress under her wing. The 15-year-old daughter of actor and colleague Daniel Gélin and model Marie-Christine Schneider was introduced to people in the cinema and modeling world. The young Maria was impressed that already at 33 Bardot was planning on quitting pictures, which she did six years later.
“Dear MARIA SCHNEIDER
You embody, you too, a facet of the modern woman and her freedom. You’re an audacious actress, able to play all roles, even including your own: thus we believe that you uncover who you are, or rather as the film makes you become in the subtle abyss of accomplishment portrayed by Bertrand Blier ten years ago in “Les Actors” where you hang out with many other “stars” of “the French seventh art”. However, it is primarily through international productions that you have arisen in the cinematic landscape and in the heart of each. At just twenty years, “Last Tango in Paris” was for you your first waltz in this world brilliant, too brilliant, perhaps, because of mysteries and appearances. Alongside the great Marlon Brando, you have “dared” to violate the proprieties of the time, and you deserved an Oscar nomination, along with all the insults and all the successes still attached to the scandal and the advances that art and artists know so often who take on the public of their time …
Exponential artist, you hug the greatest legends of cinema.
Directors like Bertolucci, or in ANTONIONI “Profession: Reporter, like Bulle OGIER (also inducted the same day into Ordre de Arts et Lettres) with RIVETTE, GARREL, SCHROETER or FASSBINDER. You share the stage with Jack Nicholson and many other giants. Altogether, no fewer than fifty films in just forty years. It is remarkable that this sustainability has earned you the honor of being in 2001 in Creteil, Festival International du Film de Femmes. (The 33rd festival this year is dedicated to Maria Schneider). Many are your appearances, both film and television, which marked the spirits and touched a wide audience, as in “Les Nuits Fauves” in 1992 whose success has been truly extraordinary. Always free, you do not hesitate to reject proposals when they lock you into the category of “Lolita”, or when you do not feel comfortable with authors, as prestigious as they are, such as Luis Bunuel and Joseph Losey. Thus, you knew that it goes beyond the interests of your career to convey an authentic artistic personality. Always bold, you have roles that have marked a radiant spontaneity, an explosive vitality as in the Last Tango I mentioned, or in the role of the prostitute in “La Déborade” by Daniel Duval.
You too have been an artist that I am pleased today to honor, a singular icon of today’s woman. Your presence, your voice hoarse and sensual, which seems to express wonderful powers of revolt, you were a model of emancipation for more than a generation. That too, I think, is the meaning of film, the image of our potential set before our eyes, which reaches out to help us become ourselves. And you have succeeded, more than others, and embody our freedom, with a tangible vitality and especially of women at a time of exploration and conquest.
At this very imperfect sketch of your personality, I would add, in fact, finally, “commitment”, not only because you give yourself on the screen, the rebellious woman, as I suggested in a few instances, but also because you’re in solidarity with your profession, as evidenced by your investment in the association “La Roue Tourne” created a little over half a century, in 1957, for older artists whom fortune has overshadowed … It is also you know, a cause particularly dear to me and which I wished to give my full support by participating in Gala d’Union for artists recently held in Paris at the Cirque d’Hiver.
For all of your background and your fighting, for your charm and emotion that you inspire in the heart of each spectator, it gives me great pleasure, dear Maria Schneider, on behalf of the French Republic, to make you a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters”.
Frédéric Mitterand. July 2010.
(Translation by author).
A quiet funeral for Maria Schneider was held at Èglise Saint-Roch on February 10. Among friends in attendance were director Bertrand Blier, actress Claudia Cardinale, writer Jean-Henri Servat, actor Alain Delon, relatives Manuel and Fiona Gélin, actress Christine Boisson, artistic director Dominique Besnehard, actress Farida Rahouadj, Deputy Mayor of Paris in Charge of Culture Christophe Girard, and actress Andrea Ferreol.
Maria’s partner (compagne) Pia whom she had been with since the 80s spoke at the memorial. “Ciao Bella, Ciao Maria,” she said, saluting her for bravery in the long illness that took her life. Maria’s ashes were to be taken from Père Lachaise crematorium to later be scattered at La Roche de Vierge in Biarritz.
Maria Schneider was acclaimed in France with the highest honor for an artist, and with the genuine appreciation and affirmation she sought her entire career. That honor must be extended elsewhere within the international film community.
Moira Sullivan is a film critic and member of FIPRESCI and FEODORA and holds a PhD in Cinema Studies from Stockholm University.
Read Sullivan’s interview with Schneider here.