Maria Schneider's Arthouse: Beyond the Myths

Merry Go Round, 1977.
For most, the focus for Maria Schneider is on a film that is 40 years old, on a role that was written by Bertolucci for a young boy but was acted by a 19-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, Last Tango in Paris, 1900.
In Last Tango Jeanne confronts her sadistic attacker Paul 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 Thompson ("Remembering Maria Schneider: Did film ruin the controversial actress's life?", New Republic, February 2011) decided to impose his astute personal reading of a photograph of Schneider at 50 and anticipate the reaction of male gazers “gulping” in pimply faced immaturity at their goddess. Even though in the end, Thompson tips his hat to Maria, the patronizing gesture is as fresh as fermented Roquefort.
How can Thompson read so much into a picture or a life of someone he never met, having seen a few (English language) films out of the 50 Schneider made? This is par for the majority of Anglophile publications with catchy tabloid titles and short, shallow obituaries on Maria.

Luigi Commencini, Ordre des Arts et Lettres
Maria Schneider worked almost every year of her nearly 40 year career. Thompson 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 Thompson'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 80's that was over. She met and stayed with the same woman to her death.
"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 Schneider.

It should be noted that the widely publicized story about Maria Schneider checking into a mental hospital to be with her lover in 1975 was at a time when visitation rights for same sex partners was prohibited, not only in Italy but everywhere. It is one of the single most recurrent fallacies circulating about her.
There are other bio fallacies that need correction- she quit the set of Caligula to make a 100% feminist film (A Woman Like Eve) and she refused to make sexist films for Joseph Losey and Luis Bunuel and left those sets too. She could have had a much bigger career," observed director Penelope Spheeris, a close friend at the time. "But I have a lot of respect for her. Think about it: To be such a sex symbol, to be so profoundly beautiful and have so much charisma and then not be available to men? Hollywood just doesn't stand for that. I don't care what people say, this town is run by men. Always."

Maria continually worked as a fine actress with a solid and productive career.  Even if you don't read French, its 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 Film de Femmes guest of honor. 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" for this purpose.
Q: How do you feel about the response to you-there is a lot of press in France about you being honored at Créteil? How do you feel you've been received?
A: 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. [See Time, March 3, 1975]. 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). 
(Interview with Maria Schneider 2001 © Moira Sullivan, Movie Magazine International)
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. (February 10, 2010).
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, Thompson 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 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 full clothed Brando emerges unscathed for the wear and tear.
Ordre des Arts et de Lettres, 2010.
Its been a sad week since the news of Maria Schneider's death was announced on February 3. 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 in July 2010, a mere six months before her death. Some of them featured her costar in Merry Go Round, (Frédéric Mitterand) who is 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 honored, which she did with bravery. She was hailed by Frédéric 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.
Schneider protége of Bardot. 
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 15 year old daughter of actor and colleague Daniel Gélin under her wing. She introduced her to people in the cinema and modeling world: an agent and William Morris. The young Maria was impressed that already at 33 Bardot was planning on quitting pictures, which she did six years later.
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 the subtle abyss of implementation -  realized 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 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 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 which 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 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. 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 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. 
 July 2010.
At the quiet funeral held at Èglise Saint-Roch, Brigitte Bardot was present through a moving letter read by Alain Delon, the woman who called Schneider every Sunday during her illness.  Among Maria's friends in attendance was the director Bertrand Blier, actress Claudia Cardinale, the writer Jean-Henri Servat, actor Alain Delon, 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) since the 80s, 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 moving where she received the genuine appreciation and affirmation she was seeking her entire career. That honor must be extended elsewhere within the international film community.

Salut Maria!

Èglise Saint-Roch, Paris
La Roche de Vierge in Biarritz.
From this point on the film, Jeanne takes charge.
Famous feminist film made in Holland by Nouchka Van Brakel
Bertolucci's odd couple: 47 year old Marlon Brando making a comeback, and 19 year old Maria Schneider.
Au Pays des Juliets
La Dérobade with Miou-Miou
Traversing the empty space of Last Tango
At Cannes Film Festival: Au Pays des Juliets
The Passenger
Maria Schneider
Merry Go Round with Joe Dallesandro
The Passenger with Jack Nicolson
Créteil Films de Femmes, guest of honor, 2001© Moira Sullivan
Créteil Films de Femmes, 2001, ©Moira Sullivan
Last Tango
The Passenger
Hellé, Roger Vadim
The Repentant: Isabelle Adjani, Maria Schneider
Last Tango
La Babysitter

The funeral of Maria Schneider, Èglise Saint-Roch,
February 10, 2011

Paris, February 10, 2011.


Amber Forest said…
I will always love this woman.
~ amber forest
David said…
Loved, respected, missed, and not forgotten.

Rest in peace
The very last photo is a touching statement. Paris itself was mourning...

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