Echoes and Mirrors: Elisabeth Subrin’s Maria Schneider, 1983


Philippa Snow writes on actress Maria Schneider and Elisabeth Subrin’s new film Maria Schneider, 1983, which screens at this year’s Open City Documentary Festival.

In Last Tango in Paris (1972), Maria Schneider is luminous and nineteen. Marlon Brando is a tired forty-seven. He is playing a man named Paul whose wife is dead; she is playing an idea—a living midlife crisis named Jeanne—and she is naked. By the fifteenth minute of the film, the two have slept together, and the central mystery of the movie is what the young and beautiful Jeanne sees in the surly and degrading style of lovemaking so favoured by her middle-aged paramour. Last Tango, as written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is a masterpiece and an affront, a come-on and a bum-out. When Maria Schneider died in 2011, most of the obituaries called her “Brando’s onscreen lover,” and most of them also used a picture of her as Jeanne, as if nearly-naked teenagers made for more moving tragedies than women in their fifties. Some years later, the MeToo movement finally drew appropriate attention to something that Schneider, scarred and dispirited by the experience of making Bertolucci’s film, had been trying to say for years, with journalists recirculating interviews in which she’d pointed out her own abuse. “That scene,” she had snarled all the way back in 2007, speaking about the anal rape that Paul enacts on Jeanne, “wasn’t in the original script. They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry…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 Bernardo Bertolucci.” “I was with Maria when she saw [Last Tango] for the first time,” the filmmaker Esther Anderson has said. “She ran from the cinema screaming … That film ruined her life.”

Schneider’s life was punctuated by periods spent in mental hospitals, by drug addictions, and by various tumultuous love affairs. If Last Tango did not ruin her entirely—she ended up, after all, happily partnered with a woman, and as a recipient of the French equivalent of a damehood—it certainly ruined her relationship with acting and the cinema, leaving her with the impression that, as she said in the original clip recreated in dazzling triplicate in Elisabeth Subrin’s Maria Schneider, 1983, being an actress is “a very, very dangerous career.” In Subrin’s film, three actresses play Schneider in a reenactment of one of the earliest examples of her speaking out against her own mistreatment in the industry, an interview from 1983 which was first broadcast on the French TV show Cinema Cinema. One of these actresses, Manal Issa, is French-Lebanese; one, Aïssa Maïga, is French-Senegalese; one, the acclaimed director Isabel Sandoval, is trans and Fillipina. The point of this threefold repetition is not to paint the singular Schneider as an everywoman, but to point out that such strictures and humiliations befall every kind of woman who decides to be an actress, whatever her race or nationality and whether she is cis or not. When asked by their off-camera interrogator whether it is possible to illustrate the interview with a brief excerpt from Last Tango, all three women mimic the same desperate gesture Schneider makes in the original recording—pressing their hands together as if in prayer, they shake their heads, letting out an emphatic non. All three of them, too, turn away just as she does to show their profiles in the mirror, making three replicate Schneiders into six.

Mostly, the dialogue stays the same; now and then, though, one or other of the actresses will modify it to express what she believes Schneider might be thinking. Sandoval, especially, adds a more explicit note to Schneider’s answer when asked whether she can separate the cinematic “force” of Last Tango from her experience filming it. If Sandoval’s in-character riff about her tears being real tears is not technically word-for-word Maria Schneider’s declaration, it sounds very much like that 2007 interview, and it also sounds like her in general—forthright, feminist, ahead of her time, scornful of men, a woman “who lives more than works.” “She could have had a much bigger career,” the director Penelope Spheeris, a friend of Schneider’s, told The Daily Beast after she died, “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.” Even now, looking at the media and the movies, it is easy to see that Spheeris’ statement still holds true, and that even if the script deviates occasionally, it never changes altogether. There are always echoes, mirrors—a sense that as women, we are doomed to repeat not just history, but each other.

Philippa Snow is a critic and essayist. Her work has appeared in publications including Artforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, ArtReview, Frieze, The White Review, Vogue, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New Republic. Her first book, Which As You Know Means Violence, is out with Repeater on September 13th.