For most, the focus for Maria Schneider is on a film that is forty years old, on a role that was written by Bernardo Bertolucci for a young boy but was acted by a nineteen-year-old French woman. Can you imagine that film? Maria discovered the original story in Italy. A film that in auteur conceit could have been the second leg of a trilogy on fascism: The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), 1900 (1975).

In Last Tango Jeanne (Maria Schneider) confronts her sadistic attacker Paul (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”.

Few journalists having a field day with the film’s excesses knew of her work, her life, or her thoughts. David Thomson, in a recent piece in The New Republic entitled “Remembering Maria Schneider: Did film ruin the controversial actress’s life?”, (1) decided to impose his very own personal reading of a photograph of Schneider at age fifty and anticipate the reaction of male gazers (“gulping”) in pimply faced geek immaturity at their goddess. Even though in the end, Thomson tips his hat to Maria, the patronizing gesture is as fresh as fermented Roquefort.

How can Thomson read so much into a picture or a life of someone he never met, having seen a few (mostly English language) films out of the fifty Schneider made? This is par for the majority of Anglophile publications with catchy tabloid titles and short, shallow obituaries.

Maria Schneider worked almost every year of her nearly-40 year career. Thomson and many other journalists would have us believe that “film killed her”; that after her debut in Last Tango, which made her become a drug addict, she never reached the same pinnacle of acclaim. That pinnacle for Thomson’s “male gazers” is the voyeuristic love of explicit sex. The film with a graphic rape for the “gulpers”. Was it film or paparazzi that “killed” Maria, if the metaphor is to be used? According to the actress, she was terrified of the instant success the film brought her and used drugs to escape. But by the 1980’s that was over. She met and stayed with the same woman to her death.

On reflection she would say, “I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol, 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”.

Maria continually worked as a fine actress with a solid and productive career. Even if you don’t read French, it is not hard to appreciate Schneider’s impressive lineage of work.

I interviewed Maria Schneider two years before her fiftieth birthday in Paris. She was beautiful and radiant, and the guest of honour of the Festival International de Films de Femmes de Créteil et du Val de Marne (Créteil Film de Femmes). We saw her films, and heard her words. They drown out the cacophony of the ignorant. 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 vice-president of “La Roue Tourne” (2) for this purpose.

In my interview of the time, I asked her how she felt about the response of the French press to her being honoured at Créteil? She replied:

Very interesting. Because finally after I’ve been doing this now for thirty years, finally I find some cheerful articles, and you know people kind of understand me better now today than they used to. Because the media threw stones at me. (3) When you read the articles back in the 70s they were terrible back then. And now seeing the kind of choices I made, they kind of understand me better. And respect me better, maybe it’s the age, I don’t know. [laughter] (4)

In the USA there is still stone throwing. But we know better with every stone unturned. Richard Corliss wrote about Schneider in Time, comparing her life work with two other actors Tura Satana and Lena Nyman. Compressing their life work into a singular film and shallow obituary. The article is entitled “Dead Sex Kittens: Farewell to Three Icons of Movie Eroticism”. (5)

Contrast sensationalized articles with interviews of Schneider and you will discover the truth that “male gazers” and “gulpers” ignore. Directors, writers, artists and actors knew her real work, knew her capability, in France and abroad. The yellow journalism of Corliss, Thomson and several mainstream film critics speaks for itself. Some journalists were kinder but almost everyone singles out Last Tango as the tour de force of Schneider’s career, a film Maria did not enjoy making, even less with director Bernardo Bertolucci, for the unrealistic dialogue and scenes. He fired her for 1900, which in hindsight was fortuitous for Schneider who said that after Last Tango the “sweaty palmed” Italian director never made anything of substance. In a twist, his conceits in the film – costume, makeup, mis en scéne, are his failures: all unfairly accredited to Schneider. A fully clothed Brando emerges unscathed for the wear and tear.

It has been a sad time since the news of Maria Schneider’s death was announced on February 3rd. Few realized she was so ill with terminal cancer. The comments about how her looks had changed from the young woman of the film that gave her international attention were unkind. It was as if she was supposed to stay forever young in real life as in cinema. Like most young women when she matured, she was not interesting.

The pictures that contrasted the young Maria with the mature Maria in fact were taken when she was inducted into the Ordre de Arts et Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) in July 2010, a mere six months before her death. Some of them featured Fréderic Mitterand, her co-star in Jacques Rivette’s Merry Go Round (1977), who is now the Minister of Culture in France. Maria was impeccably dressed in a smart blue coat, knee length, 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 and honoured, which she did with bravery. She was hailed by Fréderic Mitterand, in a letter read at the ceremony at the Ministry of Culture in Paris. Few journalists outside France covered the story. The photographs from the event received worldwide currency only with her death.

This was the French order that Brigitte Bardot refused to be inducted into in 1985. Brigitte Bardot was Maria Schneider’s confidante and took the vagabond actress, the daughter of actor and colleague Daniel Gélin, under her wing at age fifteen. She introduced her to people in the cinema and modelling world. The young Maria was impressed that already at only age thirty-three Bardot was planning on quitting pictures, which she did six years later.

Mitterand’s letter reads:

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 implementation –realized by Bertrand Blier ten years ago in Les acteurs [Actors, 2000] where you hang out with many other “stars” of “the French seventh art”. However, it is primarily through international productions that you have risen 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 brilliant world, 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 which take on the public of their time …

Exponential artist, you hug the greatest legends of cinema.

Directors like Bertolucci, or in Antonioni’s Profession: reporter [The Passanger, 1975], like Bulle Ogier, 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 honour, in 2001, of being showcased in Creteil’s Festival International du Film de Femmes. Many are your appearances, both film and television, which marked the spirits and touched a wide audience, as in Les nuits fauves [Savage Nights, Cyril Collard] in 1992. Your 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 auteurs, 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, or in the role of the prostitute in Daniel Duval’s La dérobade [1979].

You too have been an artist that I am pleased today to honour as 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 as of women at a time of exploration and conquest.

To 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, as you know, a cause particularly dear to me and to which I wished to give my full support by participating in the Gala d’Union of 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 1, 2010.

At the quiet funeral held at Èglise Saint-Roch, Brigitte Bardot was present through her moving letter, the woman who called Schneider every Sunday during her life. Among Maria’s friends in attendance was the director Bertrand Blier, actress Claudia Cardinale, the writer Jean-Henri Servat, 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) since the 1980s, Pia, spoke at the memorial. “Ciao Bella, Ciao Maria” and saluted her for her bravery in the long illness that took her life.

Maria’s ashes were to be taken from Père Lachaise to later be scattered at La Roche de Vierge in Biarritz. It may seem pointless to react to the media as if there is any conscience involved in paparazzi and yellow journalists who make a living by exploiting celebrities with a click of a camera or a quickly written paragraph dripping with sensationalism.

Maria Schneider was in the limelight from the beginning to the end. How she was remembered in France was very moving, where she received the genuine appreciation and affirmation she was seeking her entire career.

Salut Maria!

Endnotes

  1. David Thomson, “Remembering Maria Schneider: Did film ruin the controversial actress’s life?”, The New Republic (February 8, 2011). Available on line.
  2. Organisation established in 1957 by French film industry colleagues to aid actors whose lives and careers had fallen on hard times. See “La Roue Tourne”
  3. Such as a piece in Time, March 3, 1975.
  4. For full interview see: Interview with Maria Schneider 2001 © Moira Sullivan, Movie Magazine International
  5. Richard Corliss, “Dead Sex Kittens: Farewell to Three Icons of Movie Eroticism”, Time (February 10, 2011).

About The Author

Moira Sullivan has a PhD in Cinema Studies from Stockholm University. She is a freelance film critic based in San Francisco and a member of FIPRESCI (International Critics Association) and the European Critics Association.