Maria Schneider in 'Last Tango in Paris': Farewell to an art-film baby doll

LAST-TANGO-IN-PARIS_320.jpg   Image Credit: Everett CollectionI felt a special pang of nostalgic melancholy when I learned, on Thursday, that Maria Schneider had died of cancer. She was only 58, but what highlighted the sadness of her passing is that there’s one role that, for a lot of us, will define her forever, and in that one role she incarnated the spirit and beauty and giggly bloom of youth. Yes, she was good in a few other movies (notably The Passenger), but to me she will always be Jeanne, the baby-cheeked Parisian dumpling of Last Tango in Paris (1972), who descends into a torrid three-day tryst/dance/relationship/psychodrama with a desolate middle-aged widower played by Marlon Brando. Schneider was only 19, an unknown model-slash-actress with just a single movie role behind her, when director Bernardo Bertolucci cast her opposite the most legendary movie star in the world, who at that moment was on his way back to becoming the greatest screen actor in the world. More than just a movie, Last Tango would be a study — of sexual desire, of midlife agony, of Brando himself, of freedom and loss, of what movies could really be if they opened up, more than ever, to the actors who lived inside them.

The casting of Last Tango was, in its way, an audacious stunt that paid off almost more than Bertolucci might have hoped for. He mixed the two lead actors like dangerous chemicals plucked from different laboratory shelves. Brando had made his movie debut, in The Men, 22 years before, but because he had come up through the Hollywood studio system, and had rebelled against its restrictions, and had seen its collapse, it was as if he had already lived nine lives. (With The Godfather the year before, his comeback was one of the most dramatic in movie history.) He now seemed a majestic hunk of experience. Everything about his presence — the famous voice, the thousand-yard stare into the overcast Paris skies, the hair now swept back and thinning, the profile sculptured and weathered but still hawkishly handsome — spoke of a life that had been consumed, at great pleasure and at great cost.

Whereas Maria Schneider, with her mop of curls, her soft bubble face, her adorable French-accented English, was unmarked and untroubled, laughing yet disaffected, not just post-Brando but post-1960s, a living embodiment of the first “Whatever!” generation. Throwing these two together could have been a disaster, because Schneider’s first job in Last Tango was to be a kitten, a babe, a girl who looked smashing in a white fur collar, a sponge of innocence who could soak up Brando’s gravitas. And that she did from the opening scene, the famous and slightly ominous “zipless f—” in an empty, unrented flat, in which Jeanne gives herself over to Brando’s Paul (who carries her over to the wall like a caveman), because she’s got nothing else to do, and why not? In the hands of another filmmaker, the movie that followed, in which the two agree to keep meeting to continue their affair back at the apartment, without exchanging so much as their first names, might have been hopelessly out of balance and out of whack: Brando acting up a s—storm while the amateur model-slash-actress stared, blankly, and looked hot.

Last-Tango-In-ParisBut Bertolucci, letting both his actors improvise, turned the emotive, erotically charged tango of Schneider and Brando into a youth-meets-age, Europe-meets-America, fame-meets-stardom, life-meets-death duet that’s as resonant and provocative and memorable as the one Godard had staged a decade before between Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Schneider wasn’t going to play Jeanne as a lamb to the slaughter. Squaring off against Brando’s Paul, she was going to get the better of this man, to use him as much as he used her. As the movie went on, her playfulness and sensual nonchalance kept unfolding, as the girl let down her mask and the woman inside was revealed – was, in a way, born right then and there.

The first time I saw Last Tango, I was 14 (I wouldn’t have been allowed into a commercial theater — I had to catch it at a campus film society showing in Ann Arbor), and I admit that my first reaction to the movie boiled down to this: Wow, it wasn’t nearly as sexy as the stills from it in that Playboy “Sex in Cinema” feature. Viewed as something scandalous and titillating, as a salacious art-house turn-on (it was, after all, rated X), Last Tango, to my teenage eyes and libido, was a major disappointment. Yet it’s almost as if I went for the thrill and stayed for the intrigue, for the slow-building Marlon Brando opera of meltdown and catharsis. My youthful reaction captures something, I think, about how art films worked back then, and about how they’ve changed. Sex, so often, was their calling card — not because they were glorified porn, but because they reveled in the transcendence (and pain) of desire. Deny it all you want, but that, as much as anything, is why art films once mattered.

Last Tango in Paris is a movie that has often been obscured by its status as a cultural punchline (“Get the butter”), but in case you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. It captures the sexual war, and the agony of broken mid-life dreams, more than any film I can think of. Maria Schneider’s Jeanne, a French hippie-princess who seems to learn who she is as the movie goes on, ends the film on a balcony, talking to herself, holding the gun she has just fired. Those three days will be with her forever, yet now she has her whole life to live. And that’s how I’ll always remember Maria Schneider: as the girl who tangled with Marlon Brando, and lived — forever — to tell the tale.

For those who’ve seen Last Tango in Paris, what are your feelings about it? Your memories of it? And what, if any other, roles did you like Maria Schneider in?

Comments (31 total) Add your comment
Page: 1 2
  • plushpuppy

    “I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that. Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.”

    “Maria accused me of having robbed her of her youth and only today am I wondering whether there wasn’t some truth to that,”

    • Leo

      That’s sad – I didn’t know she felt that way. It changes the movie for me to know that it affected her life in such a violating way.

  • Kris

    This is a perfect summation – beautifully written.

  • del taco

    Brando’s performance in Last Tango in Paris gets my vote for best movie performance of all time.

  • jerv

    Get the butterface.

  • AntonioSaucedo

    It’s a matter of opinion, but I don’t think this film is one of the best ever; it’s not even one of MB’s best. It is MS’s best performance though. Too bad these two are gone.

    • FromChicago

      I’ve tried several times to watch it, but it’s boring. There’s little dialogue and it’s edited sloppily.

      • Radzinsky

        There’s little dialogue? That’s supposed to be a bad thing?

      • skinnydog

        Perhaps you’d prefer “Inception.” It was loaded with dialogue – fully half of which was tedious exposition.

      • skinnydog

        Then you’d better stay away from “Days of Heaven” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Tender Mercies.”

  • Dan

    This article is loaded with so much pretentious claptrap, trying to make what was basically a borderline porn film sound oh-so-profound.
    But if Schneider said was acdcurate, Brando was a f***ing bastard for sexually abusing Schneider onscreen without giving her any advance notice before the cameras rolled. But perhaps she could have intentionally ruined the “butter” scene take by saying, “No, I won’t do this.”
    Everyone involved sounds as if they were seriously messed up.

    • Gigi

      Agreed, they both took advantage of Schneider’s youth and naivete, which is pretty sick. The movie was extremely misogynistic and seemed to be about little more than a dirty old man sexually manipulating a young girl. Schneider checked herself into a mental health clinic a few years after this movie, and I’m willing to bet Brando and Bertolucci had something to do with her breakdown. Personally, I don’t give a crap how “great” Brando’s performance was, he and the director can both rot in hell.

    • chiliboots

      Agreed. No “art” is worth that kind of damage, offense and destruction.

  • Radzinsky

    It’s an amazing film, and Brando gives one of the best performances of all time in it.

  • Pete

    I can’t add much,Pauline Kael in her 1972 review summed it up beautifully
    I did like Ms.Schneider in the film and her others-The Passenger,The Babysitter.Great appreciation Owen Gleiberman

  • Pete

    Its time for a re release of Last Tango-Tired of this Harry Potter/Matrix/Twilight/Avatar generation
    Maybe for its 40th birthday a big re release

    • miss k

      You’re probably not the target audience for Harry Potter and Twilight. So lay off.

  • Eliza

    Great article! I also felt nostalgic when I read about her death. I think that her performance in last tango was perfect. For me also she will always be jeanne. I have liked also her performances in the passenger, the babysitter and dear parents, but it will jeanne the role that will make her live for ever.

  • Mark

    I got the feeling that nearly every scene was improvised with Marlon Brando barely acting at all and deliberately throwing Schneider off balance. To her credit, though she usually appeared flustered, Schneider stood up to him, both in character and as an actor and thus created what appeared to be real, albeit not sexual tension. It is the brutal and indulgent sex that left me cold. Yes, these were two characters determined to use each other as tools but Brando did too much Sartre-esque mumbling, too much holding of his head in his hands and too little f*#$ing.

  • RRB

    Two reactions to the film at this point. First, her comments about feeling violated do change my reaction to the film. Second (and the only point at which I set aside my first reaction), Brando’s scene talking to (at) his dead wife is as good as anything I’ve ever seen on film.

  • GoddessLu

    I only just saw just within the last year or so. It’s brutal, it’s heartwrenching, it’s very intentionally raw. I don’t know how much of a message it really gave other than a depiction of one man’s raw and unfettered pain splayed across the screen. If the above was indeed Maria’s quotes, it doesn’t surprise me, particularly as she was so young, to be ambushed/pushed into more uncomfortable material for the sake of art. It happens to many young girls who at that point in their lives have the instinct, but not the voice, to say this is wrong. RIP.

  • Japanese HIROSHI

    “Your memories of it? And what, if any other, roles did you like Maria Schneider in?”

    – –

    I never watched this movie. But I read it from a notable British online source a few years ago. If my memory serves me far too well, Schneider’d said something to the effect of feeling as if she’d been raped (?) by both the actor and the director. The version I read went, “fat . . . sweaty. . . and manipulative. . .” in re the director.

    – –

    I’m not here to judge the film. But from what I read, this French lady reportedly had a somewhat long-term rift with him the director. However, to be fair, she also reportedly acknowledged, on her part, the movie had brought recognition – worldwide.

    – –

    RIP, Madame.

  • Stephen Verona

    I had met Bertolucci at the Academy Awards of 1971 where we were both nominated. A year later I had shot my first dramatic feature film but wasn’t happy with it. I went to Paris. I ran into Bernardo. I told him of my plight. He said, come see my movie. I said, who’s in it? He said Marlon Brando. I saw Tango 3 times in five days. It inspired me to return to NY to finish my film The Lords of Flatbush. I will always be grateful to Bernardo Bertolucci and will miss Maria Schneider who is forever embedded in our cinematic memory.

    • Pete

      Mr.Verona Were you able to see The longer 250min or 4hour cut of Last Tango.or was it the theatrical release? I wish the 4 hour cut was available

Page: 1 2
Add your comment
The rules: Keep it clean, and stay on the subject - or we may delete your comment. If you see inappropriate language, e-mail us. An asterisk (*) indicates a required field.

When you click on the "Post Comment" button above to submit your comments, you are indicating your acceptance of and are agreeing to the Terms of Service. You can also read our Privacy Policy.

Latest Videos in Movies


From Our Partners

TV Recaps

Powered by VIP