Remembering Maria-Hélène Schneider…

Judging from her 2007 Daily Mail interview, it is not my imagination the actress Maria Schneider minimizes her on-camera sexual assault in the 1972 classic film Last Tango in Paris. It is what most victims do, to cope. The film’s most well-known and oft-referenced scene, where the middle-aged widower played by Marlon Brando sodomizes his nameless teen nymph with butter, was not in the script. It was forced on the actress 30 years Brando’s junior, and in her first major role. Her tears of surprise and degradation are real, not a performance. She did not live to see the day when she would not have to apologize for her tears or minimize her truth.

The filmed sexual assault combined with prior factors, such as her father’s abandonment, and subsequent factors, like fame’s unreality, in a confluence of misfortune and instability Ms. Schneider only escaped in her final years of life. She went to her grave knowing she publicly stated two older men forced her into unknown sexual events on camera, and then circulated the moving picture of that awful moment around the world, and her truth made no noise or difference. She stated Brando gave her no apology or consolation after filming stopped. Then the world of film and world at large gave her no apology or consolation after she told the truth. Although her New York Times obituary explicitly referenced this interview and her claims, it still remained a non-issue.

Actress Maria Schneider
Actress Maria Schneider (March 27, 1952 – February 3, 2011)

I first read the interview a few years after it was first published, prompted to it by the February 2011 announcement of Ms. Schneider succumbing to breast cancer at just age 58. I simply could not understand why I had never heard her version of events before, why her claim “I felt raped” was not inextricably associated with this film and any commentary on it, why glowing reviews from Roger Ebert and The New Yorker were not updated to include it as a new disclaimer. Furthermore, new editions of the DVD and online digital sales do not warn of filmed sexual assault. After it premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 14, 1972, it was sealed as a masterpiece and remains so.

When I did not know how much life imitated art, I liked this story of a blossoming young woman (Schneider as “Jeanne”) who gets ultimate revenge on a deadened older man (Brando as “Paul”), drawn to her as a sexual object to inject himself with new life, like a vampire. They meet as prospective renters in an empty apartment. He rents it just for their affair there. Paul is so involved with what he needs from Jeanne he does not even give her the privilege of knowing his name, or asking for hers. Then Jeanne, hooked and confused, appears at the apartment to find Paul abandoned her. By the time Paul comes around to realize most people are not designed to have nameless sex for months and then just go their separate ways, Jeanne feels repulsion and disgust for what took place. Paul hunts her down, professing love. Jeanne wishes to be left alone now. Paul won’t listen. Eventually, she shoots him and calls police to report what the situation was in some form all along: a strange man wanted to rape her, and she doesn’t know his name. Our jails would be able to admit no more if all the women who found themselves strung into abusive, unhealthy one-sided “situationships” with men were able to shoot them all.

I’ve encountered Ms. Schneider’s interview a few times over the last few years, for various reasons to think of the film; it pops up on some “Best Of” list or perhaps plays on some station. I also own a dimestore paperback version of the story, found at a street book fair (I confess I keep it with “Classics”). Each time I revisit her testimony, given voice in one of the world’s quintessential gossip rags and not a tome of hard news, it reads like a mature woman and soul most interested in her peace, well-being and sanity after an unusually and unnecessarily hard life. It reads like the interviewer and subject are just grateful the subject is still alive to tell the tale. To really go in about the reality of what she felt and remembered would be too much for her.

For by the time of this rare interview, on occasion of the 35-year anniversary of the film, Ms. Schneider had survived: suicide attempts, drug overdoses, psychiatric ward commitments (both voluntary and involuntary), career stagnations and eventually financial crises. She was 55-years old. Her megafamous co-star, Marlon Brando, was dead. Mass outrage about her filmed real-life violation only came in 2013, when another interview resurfaced. In it, the director Bernardo Bertolluci admitted to withholding their plans from Schneider, because he wanted her reaction “as a girl, and not an actress.” He sounds like a sadist, not an artist. It was film, not improv. In addition to the script are rehearsals, memorizing of lines and character preparation. From the moment these men deviated from all that to do whatever they felt like doing, a crime began.

Ms. Schneider was a teenager when her managers and agents redirected her from another film she really wanted to do, in order to push her into an offer they said she could not refuse: to star opposite Marlon Brando. She reveals she was young and sexually inexperienced, not in full understanding of much of the film’s sexual content. If she had little experience before the film, she would have more than she asked for after.

19-year old Maria Schneider in her first major film role.
19-year old Maria Schneider in her first major film role.

Ms. Schneider explained her decades of frostiness with the film’s director on how terribly he treated her from the start, as he used her to bring to life a film based on his sexual fantasies. Since the “butter scene” was not in the script, she learned of it moments before the cameras started rolling. She says she wanted to call her agents and lawyers, but did not know she had the rights to refuse what she was told to do. This was 1971. She was a teenager. She had already been pushed to be in the film in the first place. Under those conditions, she went along with what she assumed she had to do. For all this, she was paid a few thousand dollars while Brando earned a few million. Sound familiar?

Her authentic naivete absolutely powers the film’s verisimilitude and fortifies it as a showpiece for the dramatic powers of its male superstar: not only experienced in movie-making but also in life, love, women and sex by that time. The butter was Brando’s idea, according to Schneider. In the 2013 uproar from his interview, the director confirmed it was both his and Brando’s idea, thought up over the men’s regular breakfast meetings that did not include the young female costar.

Ms. Schneider, who only met her father three times, looked up to Brando. When she protested this new development she was told about just moments before the director yelled “Action,” she recalls “The Godfather” dismissed her with the reasoning “It’s only a movie.” She defended him as a near-ally against their tyrannical director and a long-term father figure who continually advised her in acting. Decades after, she zigzags between worship and anger at Brando for leaving her feeling “humiliated” and “a little raped.”

On the one hand, saying she felt “a little raped” signals her respect for women who have been killed or severely brutalized in process of sexual violation. Like Ms. Schneider, I understand some women are luckier than others, if that can even be said of an event with lifelong consequences no one can predict and no one predictable method can treat.

On the other hand, the words ‘a little’ signal the nefariously versatile thin line where experience, personality and core makeup determine how women variably respond to male sexual violation. Those two simple words from a victim’s mouth leap out as proof of how narrow the word ‘rape’ is pictured in the public imagination, how close to that picture an allegation must be for legitimacy and credibility, and how many wide-ranging experiences are deleted from that picture to leave women silent about sexual assault or even apologetic about it, as Ms. Schneider is in her later-life reflection.

‘A little’ raped for one woman might be no big deal for another and it might ruin yet another’s whole life. The assignment of degrees is necessary in sexual violation, for legal determinations and appropriate remedying. Society must consider factors such as a victim’s age and whether or not the victim made it out alive. But this necessity of gradients shatters hope in women’s and society’s abilities to hold all men accountable across the board for all actions that damage a woman’s soul, mind and life. The world’s broken moral compass is designed for us to crowd around movie screens and question credibility and not notice if women are not ‘a lot’ raped or don’t tell us about it immediately. The blind eyes to ‘a little’ raped is what has led to a lot of it.

46 years ago, a moving picture testified to sexual assault against a woman. It moved all around the world, in fact. Only, the world called it “art.” Not much has changed since. This most visible example of a public rape frames sexual assault’s most misunderstood and excused forms: coerced consent, false pretenses and pressure as permission. And people can still buy and sell this sexual assault on film to this day. Why? It should be banned for sale or screening.

46 years ago, two powerful older men had opportunity to ease the situation and give Ms. Schneider some solace after the fact, to not to include that take in this film. But they still included it anyway, and it became what their victim was known for all her life. So it broke her all over again, and over and over until she “went mad.” Today, powers-that-be have opportunity to ban sale or screening of the film. But they still make money off it anyway. Last Tango in Paris is sold digitally on most e-movie vendors, as well as available in retail stores in DVD editions. What kind of world do we live in?

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7 thoughts on “Remembering Maria-Hélène Schneider…

  1. Wow. I am flabbergasted. Thank you for educating me about Marie Schneider, and this awful history of Last Tango in Paris. I’ve never seen the film from start to finish but I grew up in the 1970s always hearing it referred to as a masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

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