This past January, I was fortunate enough to catch a brand new35 mmprint 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.” Considering that she acted in over forty films, post-Last Tango in Paris, and had been in recovery from drug addiction, since the early 1980s, Thomson’s argument was specious at best, not to mention, deeply condescending to Schneider herself.
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.
Maria Schneider excelled, when she starred in Last Tango in Paris, acting opposite one of the medium’s most dominant leading men and for one 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.