‘Being Maria’ Review: The Making Of ‘Last Tango In Paris’ & How 19-Year-Old Maria Schneider’s Dream Big Break With Brando Turned Into A Nightmare – Cannes Film Festival

There has been a lot of noise at this year’s Cannes Film Festival about France’s accelerated MeToo movement, particularly by female cinema stars leading the charge. So whether coincidental or not, the world premiere in the Cannes Premiere section last night of Being Maria (aka Maria) seemed like perfect timing and more relevant than ever

Jessica Palud directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Laurette Polmanss (inspired by cousin Vanessa Schneider’s 2018 book) focusing on the life of actress Maria Schneider, who at age 19 was cast in 1973’s notorious sexual drama Last Tango In Paris, a scandal-riddled production from director Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Marlon Brando that got so heated the stars and director were even threatened with six months jail time in Italy upon its release, even as critics hailed the film as a masterpiece. Long before MeToo and the focus on treatment of women in Hollywood, Schneider became an advocate for actresses caught up in similar situations like she was: a newcomer who was exploited by the powerful males in charge, in this case by both Brando and particularly Bertolucci, who deviated from the script without telling Schneider, resulting in at least one improvised scene that bordered on rape, as seen in retrospect by the young and inexperienced female lead.

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Anamaria Vartolomei plays Schneider and goes from a young teenager living under a non-supportive mother (Madie Cyllain) who had no faith in her daughter, causing Maria to leave home at 15 and head to Paris where she landed roles as an extra in some films and TV shows, and eventually secured an agent, and even a few roles here and there including in one Alain Delon movie. But the focus for the first half of Maria is squarely on Schneider landing a role opposite Brando (played with uncanny believability by Matt Dillon) in Last Tango In Paris, a dream come true that turned into a bit of a nightmare as both Brando, and to a greater degree Bertolucci, basically used Schneider to get the desired results on screen in the X-rated major studio picture no one would touch.

In one notorious scene, the one with the butter as it became widely known, Brando, at the director’s urging, went way off script in adding the butter to the highly sexually suggestive scene, which featured nudity for Maria but not for Marlon, who got to keep his overcoat on. Schneider is pushed to the ground and essentially “assaulted” sexually in the scene, which was done in one take. She stormed off the set, humiliated, and later would call it a form of rape. Incidentally for the filming of that scene, Vartolomei was protected not only by Maria director Palud bringing in an intimacy coordinator (something unheard of in 1973 when Tango came out) but also a stuntperson to do the stuff where Maria is tossed around and to the floor, something Schneider herself never got.

When Last Tango became a hot potato at time of release, Schneider is portrayed in interviews as a new sex kitten as well as for future acting jobs. Producers tried to find ways to get her clothes off on camera, and this caused a downward spiral in her career when she would refuse, or even walk out. Despite other films including her favorite The Passenger for another iconic Italian director, Michaelangelo Antonioni, and Brando’s friend Jack Nicholson, the rest of her career was spotty and she frequently turned to speaking out for better treatment for women in the industry. This was decades before #MeToo and Time’s Up. Schneider was a pioneer, but not without a cost. She developed mental problems, threatened suicide, was basically uninsurable, and became a drug addict. Palud’s film tends to run quickly and episodically into these scenes, and then finally a later affair with a female production assistant, Noor (Celeste Brunquell), who desperately tries to help her out of darkness and addiction. Although the film doesn’t mention it except as an opening dedication card for Maria, she died in 2011 at age 56, the name of Last Tango In Paris in every headline.

The familiar kind of biopic moments outside of the sequences about the making and aftermath of Last Tango put all this squarely in the Lifetime TV Movie of the Week formula, and it just doesn’t have the uniqueness to match those scenes. Fortunately, it is all lifted tremendously by its talented and intriguing star, Vartolomei, who is utterly convincing in the role of Maria without turning it into a beat-for-beat impression. She really is stunning here, gaining our sympathy for the ringer Maria was put through and her courage in speaking out, even if that meant keeping her out of mainstream Hollywood. Dillon was brave to take on such an icon as Brando, a true hero figure among actors, and fortunately he nails it by keeping it all within the confines of making this one film. Re-creations of various scenes in it are spot on. Giuseppe Maggio is fine as Bertolucci, a director portrayed as caring only to get his vision on screen, no matter what it takes. French star Yvan Attal plays Schneider’s father but has little to do comparatively.

Maria Schneider, outside of Last Tango In Paris, is largely forgotten now, so good on Palud and Vartolomei for bringing her back and making her life more relevant than ever.

Title: Being Maria
Festival: Cannes (Cannes Premieres)
Director: Jessica Palud
Screenwriters: Jessica Palud and Laurette Polmanss
Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Matt Dillon, Giuseppe Maggio, Celeste Brunnquell, Yvan Attal, Maddie Cyllain
Sales agent: Studio Canal
Running time: 1 hr 40 min

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