Last Tango in Paris: in Maria Schneider’s Words

Developmental Editing by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Editing and Posting by Elena Cronick

Filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci first publically acknowledged his exploitation of Maria Schneider during the filming of Last Tango in Paris after her death in 2011. In a video clip from 2013, falsely identified by U.S. media as “recently surfaced news” that reappeared before Thanksgiving, Bertolucci explained that he wanted Maria to feel humiliated as a young girl, not act humiliated, so he did not tell her about the simulated scene where Marlon Brando anally rapes her. He emphasized that he doesn’t “regret it but feels guilty.”

Maria Schneider in The Passenger

Maria Schneider in The Passenger

Maria has always maintained that she was mistreated on the set.[1] Why is everyone listening to him now and not her—for years? Why is this film still considered her “downfall” when she went on to make over 40 films?  Maria got over Last Tango but those who never bothered to hear her own words about the experience would rather be shocked by Bertolucci’s rationalization.

I saw Last Tango in Paris (1972) the second time at a small theatre on Rue de La Huchette in “quartier Latin” near Notre Dame. The line snaked up to the little Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche alley. The police stormed the California screening where I first saw the film and had snuck in underage. The emerging star Maria Schneider had made her world debut. What I remember most of all was that “Jeanne” shot “Paul” (Marlon Brando) after a couple of hours of onscreen film abuse and that it was self-defense.

I had the honor of finally meeting Maria in Paris where she was the guest of honor at Créteil Films de Femmes in 2001. Equally enchanting was the discovery that she came with her Italian girlfriend of many years. The conversation forever altered whatever I had thought about Last Tango.  Maria discovered the original story for the film in Italy after Last Tango was completed. It had been written by Bernardo Bertolucci for a young boy. The script with French-language adaptation by Agnès Varda was later adapted for a young woman and Bertolucci chose the 19 year old Maria, who was appearing in her first major role.

Last Tango in Paris in “auteur conceit” can be seen as the second leg of a trilogy on fascism including The Conformist (1970) and 1900 (1975).  Bertolucci believed that “the average man is fascistic” and homosexual. He cast Jean Louis Trintignant and Donald Sutherland in key roles in both films that exemplify this, and that is why a young boy instead of Schneider was meant to play opposite Brando. [2]  Schneider debated whether to take the part but her friends, including mentor Brigitte Bardot, convinced her that she couldn’t pass up a role with Brando.

Last Tango In Paris / Ultimo Tango A Parigi (1972) | Pers: Maria Schneider, Marlon Brando | Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci | Ref: LAS053AH | Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Pea ] |

Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in Last Tango In Paris

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.” According to Maria, she was terrified of the instant success the film brought her. A reading of Last Tango is ripe with “visual pleasure”—the use of sadism and sexual violence against women aptly identified by Laura Mulvey in her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975).  Bertolucci in an interview in 1973 confirms this, “The manner in which we who love the cinema love a woman is very special. It’s a very mythological way of loving women—and it’s doomed to sado-masochism”[3].

On how women regard the relationship between Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando, he proclaimed: Women are the only ones who really understand the film. Because it’s a film that’s built on the concept of the inside of the uterus. Not just the room. Marlon in fact makes a voyage back to the uterus — so that at the end he’s a fetus. The colors in the film are uterine colors.”[4] The statement demonstrates how out of touch Bertolucci was with the reception of his film as many women experience the simulated rape scene as exploitation. The emphasis of this quote is not about how women perceived the relationship, but about Marlon’s role, who represented the director’s fantasies.

A middle aged man (Brando – “Paul”) and a young woman (Schneider – “Jeanne”) meet in a for-rent apartment on Rue Jules Verne. They begin a love affair in which there are no names given, no history spoken. Jeanne is about to be married to Tom, a young film director (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who frames her for a shot in a film whenever they share screen space. Bertolucci claims that Jeanne and Tom represent his own “adolescent bisexuality”[5].  Tom is not unlike Bernardo Bertolucci in his lack of regard for his young protégé. But there is one great moment in the film for Jeanne: when she emotes crisply, passionately, with force, “it’s over” – “c’est fini!” She has a zest for life, which is constantly debased. It is the ultimate proof of her strength when after saying no to Paul several times she shoots him. Her character reasons, “I didn’t know him. Didn’t know his name. He followed me and was going to rape me.” In fact, Bertolucci and Brando did just that. Bertolucci and Brando were violators and predators and forced a 19-year-old Maria into a scene simulating anal sex. Since Bertolucci ‘s 2013 interview corporate media is exploiting the details, yet Maria’s complaint was with the scene as a whole, which was not discussed beforehand with her and was privately planned by Brando and Bertolucci. This is what she has maintained all along. The scene can’t be compartmentalized as Bertolucci has done in his guilty rationale when Maria is no longer here. No means no, on screen and off. Maria said “No.” The humiliation we see onscreen is real and it haunted her for years after the film was completed. The filmmakers and actors of Last Tango in Paris were brought to court in Italy for making an “obscene” movie. But when we look at this film, it signals a feeble turn towards art-house eroticism, which is tame by today’s standards. For as Maria Schneider noted years later in Créteil Films de Femmes, “In retrospect, this film is harder in the dialogue of the picture—since we have seen much worse—in the perversity of the text and the screenplay by Franco Arcalli, which rotates around zoophilia, pigs, and all that … There is also a deadly side, and I must say that the murder in the end of the film did me much good.”[6]

Maria Schneider, Paris, 2001

Maria Schneider, Paris, 2001. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

Almost everyone still 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 impact. His brutal humiliation of Jeanne in exploitive scenes and crude dialogue has been used against Schneider. A fully clothed Brando emerges unscathed for the wear and tear.

Maria passed away ten years after our interview.  Is everyone FINALLY getting around to understanding what Maria Schneider has said OVER AND OVER for years? On reflection of Last Tango 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.” In my interview at Créteil Films de Femmes in Paris (2001), I asked her how she felt about the response of the French press to her being honored 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. 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]. [7]

The role was a real blow to Maria and caused her to spin out for years until she met her soul mate from Italy. [8] Watch her in Antoninioni’s The Passenger (1975) or René Clément’s The Babysitter (1975) to get a sense of the real Maria at that age, not this artifice written for a young boy that Bertolucci put her through. Since Maria’s death and now recently in this resurfaced 2013 video clip, Bertolucci finally acknowledges his abuse, which is meaningless. He claims, as do other male filmmakers today such as Lars Von Trier, that abuse is part of his art and that it is necessary to get the performances he wants.  Schneider got over it but went on record to tell the truth about how his “art” was his own personal sadistic fantasies.


[1] El Mundo de Alycia, November 23, 2016 The video clip ends with an uncredited photograph that I took of Maria in 2001 in Créteil.

[2] Rolling Stone, Jonathan Cott, June 21, 1973. Ingmar Bergman’s remarked this about the film: “I don’t think it’s really about a middle-aged man and a young girl, but about homosexuals. As it is now, it makes no sense as a film. But if you think about it in those terms, it becomes interesting.”

[3] IBID

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[6] “Maria Schneider – Belle et Rebelle” Interview with Maria Schneider by Jackie Buet, Elisabeth Jenny.Créteil Films de Films, 2001.

[7] “Maria Schneider, Interview By Moira Sullivan”, Movie Magazine International, April 1, 2001.

[8] “A Tribute to Maria Schneider”, Moira Sullivan, March 2011, Senses of Cinema: