Ester Amy Fischer's Blog

Ester Amy Fischer

Ester Amy Fischer
March 22
I am a writer and a performer and the author of the novel, AMERICAN COURTESAN. AMERICAN COURTESAN is the story of a struggling Brooklyn musician who, in a moment of financial need fueled by sexual fantasy, decides to become a prostitute using an online bulletin board called Bobsboard to hawk her wares. You can read more about it or follow my blog at I also have a band, Ester Amy Fischer and the Drastic Measures. I live part-time in Brooklyn and part-time in the magical mountains of Western North Carolina. Feel free to friend me on facebook or follow me on twitter

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FEBRUARY 11, 2011 9:41AM

Of Girls, Desire and Older Men: the Death of Maria Schneider

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at eighteen

à  mémoire

 It was called to my attention that a famous actress died last week at the relatively young age of 58. Maria Schneider, forever branded in our cultural memories as the baby-faced lover to an aging Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris. I had to pause to reflect on Maria, as there had been a way in which she had touched my life. Or that I had felt a sisterhood with her, some common bond.

 Maria was nineteen when Bernardo Bertolucci cast her in the role of Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris. I was nineteen too and living in Paris when I first saw the movie. It was a semester abroad; I was in school and going abroad was a requirement for my major. I realize how it might seem that I was absurdly privileged to be there, but I didn’t feel privileged. I mostly felt lonely and dislocated. I was not only trying to navigate what it meant to be a “grown-up” woman, emerging from my childhood, I was – for the first time in my life – cut off from my family and friends, alone in a place where I barely spoke the language, where I didn’t fully understand the cultural rules.

 But anyway, I saw Last Tango in Paris. It was an assignment in a class on film. The professor of that class, a woman, was the wife of a famous French intellectual. She must have been around the same age I am now. I remember looking up to her: she was beautiful, generous, and oh so brilliant. And unlike, my female professors back in the states, she was feminine and sexy. She sauntered about the room talking about cinéma et société, her high-heeled pumps clacking on the ceramic floor, her hips held tightly in skirts which ended mid-thigh in the patterned swirl of black lace stockings. She was a self-avowed feminist, but she wasn’t like any of the feminists I’d ever known, the kind who wore mannish shirts and jackets, who eschewed make-up and smoked pipes.

 Like most people, the “butter scene” in Last Tango in Paris made an impression on me, but I’m not sure what kind of impression. My naiveté and innocence spared me from being either repulsed or titillated, but it left me somewhat confused. I looked to my professor for interpretation. She spoke about “passion,” about how the young girl played by Maria had a “daddy complex.” I didn’t have a daddy complex; I had a real father. But I’d never felt passion, and it was something I wanted to know.

And I wanted to be a writer. It was the only thing that made sense to me: words and the way they express ideas. I was loving learning French and reading in my new language. I kept journals and wrote all the time: poems, fragments of stories, plays. I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be ushered into that rarified world of my literary heroes. I was particularly taken by the work of Marguerite Duras. That semester, I read all her novels and went to the Cinematheque to see all her films.

Another thing that I need to say about myself at that time is that I was beautiful. Not just beautiful as almost all young females are, but stunning. And I was at war with my beauty. This war against my beauty had reached its climactic battle that season. Like Maria, I still had the slightly pudgy, big-eyed visage of a child wedded somewhat incongruously to the body of a woman. And, having lead a fairly sheltered existence, I was completely unprepared for the zealous attentions of men that I received in Paris. I didn’t wear make-up. I wore boyish clothes. I let my hair get unkempt. But no matter what I did to efface my beauty, it just popped back out like an unwanted pimple. And everywhere I went, men gaped at me, lunged at me – in Paris, they literally chased me through the streets. I wanted to be left alone.

Well, not entirely alone. I longed for a friend, a boyfriend. Someone who would understand. But there was no one, and I spent an inordinate amount of time alone: alone with my thoughts, with my books, movies, words.

There was another professor in the school, my philosophy professor. Let’s call him Philippe. He was a man in his early forties, handsome and charismatic. The male counterpart to the film professor, he had an overt virility and sensuality that I was unaccustomed to. His hair was longish and just unruly enough to make him appear romantically bohemian. He was an eccentric dresser; he’d wear pinstripe suits and shirts buttoned a little low which exposed a bit of his chest hair. He was tall and had a prominent nose, a large forehead.  He spoke about being and time, consciousness and language. These were things I thought about all the time, that I was writing about alone in my little dormitoire. He was the one who would understand me, and best of all, he had eyes that really sparkled when he smiled. And he smiled at me – a lot.

When you read the obits for Maria Schneider, there is one thing that repeats over and over. She had a turbulent life. She felt traumatized by Last Tango in Paris and afterward suffered a break down and began abusing drugs. She never had much of a career after that film, even though it had made her famous. When I first read this about her, I didn’t understand how she had allowed herself to become so victimized. So she was topless on screen and in a few tawdry sex scenes. Big deal. It all seems so tame by today’s standards. She’d become a household name. She didn’t make much money on that film, but she certainly could have on subsequent ones. Why didn’t she take the money and run?

I watched Last Tango in Paris again for the first time in decades and I was appalled – not appalled by the rape or the humiliation inflicted by Paul on Jeanne, nor by her seeming complicity in it. What appalled me was Jeanne’s complete lack of a developed story, of an interior life. While Brando’s character dominates the screen, acting and reacting to the traumas life has inflicted on him by being a narcissistic brute, she is ultimately a mystery: none of her actions make sense. She is torn between two men: one who dehumanizes her by putting her on a pedestal, the other who dehumanizes her by turning her into a piece of meat. Why has she placed herself in theses extremes? Why is she reluctantly poised to marry the buffoonish filmmaker? And why does she consent over and over again to be abused by a down-and-out, balding, old drifter with – as he admits later – a big gut and an ailing prostate. Is her pleasure to be deprived of pleasure? To be completely objectified? Is she a masochist? If that is the case, we are never made to understand it that way.

But while I can’t understand what the character Jeanne sees in the character, Paul – neither if she has “daddy issues” nor if she is an unconscious sexual submissive – I can easily imagine how Maria must have felt about Brando and Bertolucci. They were brilliant, top in their fields. She wanted to be an actress, a serious actress, not a sex symbol, not a porn star; and they had the power to usher her into that rarified world.

As the semester progressed, Philippe began to focus more and more attention on me. In fact, it seemed as though he began to teach the class as though I were its only occupant. He’d often look directly into my eyes as he lectured. I’d catch him surreptitiously gazing at my body; lingering on it when I got up, accompanying it when I walked across the room. I noticed that he’d often blush, sometimes shudder. When we got to the section on Nietzsche, he spoke about Nietzsche’s desperate love for the much younger Lou Salome, how she’d destroyed him with her beauty and her brilliance. He’d look right at me as though to communicate that I would be his Lou, and he my Nietzsche. Then he waited for me by the beverage machine after class to have a few words. He spoke to me in a very soft voice, his entire body trembling.

In the evenings, when I was home alone in my little room writing, Philippe became the central character of all my stories and my Wednesday philosophy class became the central point of my Parisian existence.

After the second to last class, he lent me two books that he thought would interest me, one by Georges Bataille, the other by Herbert Marcuse. After the last class, I waited for the others to leave to return the books to him. Then we walked out into the street and he asked me where I lived. He asked me if I were staying in Paris for a while. I told him until the end of the month.

“That’s not very long,” he said, seemingly disappointed.

When I went down into the metro, he came with me, and we boarded the train. When we disembarked, we sat on a bench in the station for what seemed a really long time, neither of us speaking. After some time, he asked me what I’ll do when I leave and I explained I was going to write a novel.

“Can’t you do that here?” he asked.

He seemed lost in his thoughts for a while and then he asked me why I seemed so sad and why I was so quiet. I told him that I hadn’t been happy this semester in Paris, which was true. I wanted to tell him that I was quiet because I felt incredibly shy, especially with him.

“I have the impression that you live in your fantasies, that you don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality,” he said. That seemed crazy to me and I didn’t know what to say, so I simply took his hand. He smiled and we gazed into one another’s eyes for a very long time.

When we left the metro, we walked until we got to the dorm. As we were climbing the stairs to my room, he pulled me to him and began to kiss me. I felt that I had never been kissed, never been held before. When we got to my room, he undressed me, lay on my bed with his clothes on and asked me to climb on top of him.

After we had sex, I remained straddling his legs and rested on his chest. He pulled me up, gazed into my eyes and kissed me all over, kissing my breasts with particular tenderness. He called me, “ma petite fille” and said I was crazy. I didn’t like that. Then he said that he was my little brother. I liked that much more. He said that he felt like he was living in a novel and asked again if I would stay in Paris. I told him I didn’t know. Then he said that he had to go, but when he came back, we’d go for a walk.

Classes were over and now and all my friends were leaving. I really had nothing to do, nothing to do but wait for Philippe to return. I don’t remember how long I waited, if it were a day or two or an entire week. I don’t remember if we spoke in between. This was before cell phones, texts and email, and I definitely had no phone in the dorm. What I know is that I longed for him to come back, and it was the first time in my life I’d felt such a debilitating and seemingly interminable longing.

Philippe came back to see me in my little chambre a few more times. Each time I was ecstatic to see him, each time he would ask me if I were staying in Paris, but each time he would leave very abruptly after we had sex. “I have to run; I am always running,” he said.

I don’t know if he realized how much his departures wounded me or how lonely I felt in the space between them and his arrivals. I wondered why he didn’t take me out, why he didn’t invite me to his apartment. He’d told me he had an extensive knowledge of German literature. I’d told him that I liked German cinema; I’d been watching Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. I wanted to go to the movies with him. I wanted to talk about books. I wanted to show him what I had been writing.

The last time he came to my little room, he seemed agitated. He paced back and forth in front of my bed. “Are you staying in Paris?” he demanded. He looked almost like he was going to cry. “I’m afraid of death, I’m afraid of the end of things.” He said that his mother had died when he was very young. He told me about his first love, how she had married someone else. “Soon you forget. It all disappears.”

I wanted to tell him that I’d never been in love before. I wanted to tell him that he was my first love. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t want to leave; that I wanted to be with him always. I wanted to tell him that I hated it that he came to my room, fucked me like a whore, and left. “My plane ticket is for the end of the week,” I said.

Philippe looked angry, upset. He undressed me brusquely; he grabbed my throat. He grabbed my cunt. He said something about societal opposition to pleasure and then he started massaging my anus. He told me to turn over and penetrated me there. I don’t remember if it hurt or not, but I remember when it was over, he stood abruptly and went to the window. 

There was blood later that night.

The next day, I went to the female film professor’s apartment. She’d invited me to return my final paper. I’d written it on Marguerite Duras’ film, Le Camion. It was called “Le Désir et L’Impossibilté.” Exuding enthusiasm, she said that it was completely brilliant, that it was one of the best pieces of writing she had seen from a student in her career. I think she wanted to know more about me. But I mostly wanted to tell her that I was suffering. I wanted to tell her what had happened with Philippe. But I couldn’t.

When I got home to my parent’s house in the states, I fell into a deep depression. My symptoms were horrifying to me as I had never felt them before. I called Philippe, but a woman answered the phone. Or did she? Maybe I called him and no one ever answered. My memory here gets hazy because by that time I had completely devolved. And the choices I made after that were entirely self-destructive.

Eventually I went back to school and had a terrible semester. I slept through my classes, lost weight, lost many friends. In the program I was in, we received evaluations in lieu of grades. My professors called me “sullen”, “a brooding presence.” They said that while I was “occasionally brilliant, my thoughts were disjointed and unclear.” But I had one thing on my side, I was young and having the buoyancy of youth, managed to eventually bounce back. Or did I?

In 2000 or so, I googled his name and found out he had died. He must have been in his early fifties. After a long battle with cancer, just like Maria Schneider. The internet is replete with mentions of him. It appears that after those years he became a near celebrity: in France, where intellectuals are rock stars. Over ten years after his death, his work is still being published, documented, and evaluated. Yet there is nothing about his personal life: no mention of a wife, no mention of children.

But there are plenty of photos. And in many of them, he looks exactly as he did when he was my lover. I look into his eyes and I remember him saying, “Soon you forget, you forget the features of a face; you forget the color of eyes.” I remember remarking that his eyes were light brown and thinking, “I will never forget you.”  

But I’ll never know what was going on his head. Why he thought it was okay to take a young student as a lover. Why he thought it was okay to take a lover while he had another woman in his life. Did he have another woman in his life? Why he thought it was okay to confuse me by asking me to stay, but then leaving me alone in my dorm room pining for him for days. Why he thought it was okay to be sexually violent to me when I was just feebly trying to take care of myself, to get myself through the narrow dark tunnel of adolescence into the light.

Once when asking me if I would stay in Paris, he’d said, “We will not know when one another dies; we will not know the circumstances of one another’s deaths.”

Well, you were wrong, Philippe. I know how you died, and when. But you will never know about my death, nor about my life.

At the end of Last Tango in Paris, Jeanne kills Paul, her older lover, with her father’s army pistol. Although the symbolism is pretty heavy-handed, we still don’t understand why she does a thing.



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This was riveting. Thanks for posting.
Thank you, OEsheepdog. This is somewhat of an experiment. It is material I am planning to use in a novel or maybe a memoir...
i vote for memoir...this is terrific. I went to study writing in Paris a few years ago. Unfortunately, no sex...c'est domage!
Love Duras
Beautifully written!
I too understand the difficulties in being beautiful.
It ain't necessarily all that the less pleasing to the eye imagine it to be, is it?
Beautifully written.

Now THAT was an extraordinary piece of writing. And featuring a film that I cannot say that I love, but one that I have watched many times. It fascinates me. Like watching a train wreck. You use it so well, so relevantly in connection with your own story.
That's a terrific piece.

When you look at the story of people like Britney Spears you really have to wonder if anything much has changed in the way the entertainment industry chews up young people.
thanks...It reminded me of my own confusion when I was introduced for the first time, as a teenager,to the ecstatic, beautiful and delightfully and scary beauty of making love by an older woman.
I want to express my appreciation for this but words fail.

I also want to say that my favorite film, "The Passenger", featured Maria Schneider, this time with Jack Nicholson. Antonioni was kinder to her than Bertolucci was, but she played pretty much the same character.
thank-you for one of the best pieces of writing I've stumbled upon on opensalon in a long while...

wonderfully nuanced and sad. I,too, love marguerite duras and the first man I ever fell for, too, was beautiful, mysterious, french.
Wow. Thank you everyone for reading and for the comments. codger07, I need to see that movie. I never have...
Wow, great post. rated
the intellectual and the student, falling for each other, one of the world's oldest archetypes
but in the end, we never know anything, or what prompts us to act as we do
thank you for posting
An absolutely gripping piece and I had trouble reading it as I was once married to a "Philippe". You exposed me in someway to the point of view of the young student whom I never got to know or hear. It may be very different, but at least it gives me something to think about. Thank you.
I think Jeanne kills Paul to free herself from his tyranny.
l'idée: romantique, sentimentale, désirable
la vie: violente, incompréhensible, qui se termine par la mort
Paris, 1980: assis à une fenêtre qui se donne sur la rue, écoutant le jazz à la radio, mangeant du pain et du fromage en buvant bien sûr du vin. La quintessence de l'idylle imaginée.
Toronto, 2011: boulot, impôts, divorce.
Une bonne histoire vient de la tragédie. Une bonne vie, une vie paisible n'est pas forcément intéressante. J'attends avec impatience vot' prochain billet.
the story here is wonderfully gripping, and the writing is lush...what more could a reader ask for but 'more please!'.
Another thing that I need to say about myself at that time is that I was what they might call devastatingly beautiful. Not just beautiful as almost all young females are, but stunning. And I was at war with my beauty.

...but not your ego.
I see a youth content with having fiery affair, yet you seem to claim you wanted the companionship that comes with two souls truly becoming one. I never see an effort from what you wrote that shows otherwise.

Forgive the questions I just truly enjoyed the piece you have written and like in life, I am found wanting to understand the mind of a woman at the end. You danced the tango with him and were content to allow him to lead, but you seemed never to make a suggestion for a different tempo.
Submissives are in control at the very heart of a sexual union that explores power. You win in the end but it isnt about winning, it is about the dance.
Amazingly beautiful account of innocence and naivity taken advantage of.. I truly enjoyed reading this.
Right, Latinattack, I was emotionally immature and pretty inexperienced -- even for my age. I can see in rereading my journals from the time how incredibly "young" I was. I didn't really understand these things. It's interesting, in writing the piece and going through the process, I came to see how uncommunicative and secretive and withholding I was. But I didn't have the tools to be otherwise.

Yes, Zanelle, but the submissive needs to first understand and own their power, which again takes a high degree of knowledge and maturity, to know how to manage those impulses.
Have you given thought that him asking if you would stay in Paris, was his way of trying to have a dialogue about turning your relationship into something more?

I am fully aware that the possibility of him using you and wanting to continue using you is highly plausible. I also feel that its possible that him asking if you would stay in Paris, was his way of opening up and perhaps making himself more vulnerable to deeper feelings for you.

Have you wrestled with this possibility at all? The more I think about how your relationship ended, I find his actions at the end being that of a man who in moment of weakness and asking you to stay, once rebuked, he may have thought you wanted nothing more then a dirty little story so he ended it the way a novel would. Hardly the actions of a lover.

That's where my man sensibility and years of reading people leads me to.

Once again I really enjoyed the telling of the story and the thought you have provoked. Thank you for sharing.
You told your story with such a cinematic quality. Thank you for sharing this.
I'm so very moved by your personal story and glad you wrote about Maria. I too felt a very strange swell of pangs to hear of her death: Of how, in some ways, she became a sacrifice for other young women to better understand the potential consequences of such reckless affairs. I want to thank her, say a prayer for her, help her release any suffering she might have had. I agree with you completely about her character's lack of depth in Last Tango... feminist film theory has nearly ruined my storytelling, as I try to find a way for women to be at the center, when we seem designed to be the object in all narrative structure, even, sometimes, in our own stories. And the public at large seems not to like to see women portrayed otherwise. Maybe, with good gentle coaxing and richer women's representation, this will change.

Again, thank you for honoring a woman artist with great power, even though she may not have known it herself. I will be watching you and looking forward to seeing your book.
the parallels of your life with last tango in paris are indeed remarkable. yeah the movie is one of those headscratchers. you say it fits in with the times, but it seems "orthogonal" to cinema before/after in many ways. as for your very high opinion of your youthful beauty.. interesting perspective there...
Thank you again everyone for reading and your feedback. Hmm, Helvetica, I think there are examples of movies by men and by women (more men because, alas, film is still really male dominated) that give female characters a rich and believable interior life. But this definitely isn't one of them. Yes, William Belle, as I like to say: what doesn't kill us, only makes us more interesting.
Yes indeed, Ester Amy, there are some complex, rich empowering portrayals of women in film and television. Still, I personally wish it was just a little more equal. And, I'm a little ticked about this whole "Black Swan" crazy woman archetype hyping up again.

I had a second thought, too...more about art and representation and responsibility...leading to a personal question, I hope it's not too much or too painful, if so, do ignore : Do you think that seeing the movie at that tender place encouraged your affair, or discouraged it (perhaps creating internal doubt and/or conflict about it)? Did it have any relationship/cause effect at all? Or was it just, perhaps, synchronicity?

Again, really powerful stuff, particularly because you've processed so much of it, but without losing the feeling. It could be a novel or a memoir. I'm not sure it really matters which.
poignant and captivating.
I loved this - thank you.

It reminded me of Duras' The Lover more than Tango, maybe mainly because watching that film made me feel tacky, as much as I respect M Schneider & Brando I cannot stand Bertolucci.

But I loved this. Bonjour tristesse.
Arresting essay with many questions. Most which could be answered that your thoughts, feelings even the basest of human desires or concerns, mattered not to him. Just your availability in his times of need. Of older men and malleable young woman, I have stood in that place also. Well done.
This is fiction, right?
a beautiful, well-written piece ... as another poster commented Schneider was in the Antonioni movie "The Passenger", released in 1975 ... she was the embodiment of beauty, mystery and passion in the film ... a stunning performance
Excellent writing! Glad I read this! I remember being propositioned by professors. I never slept with any, but some of my friends did. It is an abuse of power, but it is a gray area legally. Having sex with one's students, while having power over their grades is simply wrong by my lights.
An amazing post. Truly.

So many elements that you brought together so aptly, I don't know where to begin.

Other than, it seems to me, most films are made from a male's perspective. A fantastical, egotistical perspective. Hence why women are often one dimensional pawns. Or castrating bitches.

At this point, I have trouble seeing films where older men are paired with younger women. I just can't get past it. That means I miss a LOT of movies, but oh well...I just can't handle the disparity anymore.
Beautifully written and yes, riveting.
Compelling and evocative piece of writing, Ms Fischer. I'm going to keep my eye out for the eventual novel or memoir you make of this. Thank you so much for sharing this.
I remember Marie. I was too young to see "Last Tango In Paris" when it first came out. I first saw here in Antonnione's "The Passenger" with Jack Nicholson my senior year in high school. I have never forgotten her. Not because of "Last Tango" but because of her role in "The Passenger". Through out the years, I would think of her, especially when watching a performance by Nicholson or Brando. She moved me and has in away haunted me. I haven't seen either film in years. I hoped to see her in more films, but I never did.

In reflecting on your experience with an older, worldly man who acted insensitively toward you, I wonder whether her early career hurt her as you were hurt.

Now not only will I never forget her, I will never forget you.
Thank you, yesterdayspaper, and again everyone else as well.
A truly wonderful piece. I look forward to your book. And like Kim said, bonjour tristesse...
This was particularly striking to me because of a certain outstandingly beautiful (& innocent) young woman at my college (I'll call her 'Lisa") who allowed herself to be seduced by the charismatic youngish philosophy teacher, & who suffered, I think, in some of the ways you describe. It's moving to hear the voice of the ingenue.

You're right (I'm putting words in your mouth) that the most irritating aspect of Last Tango - the thing that brings it close to porn - is that blank slate of a character.

As a bystander & a typically moralistic youth, I was upset to watch this train wreck, wanted to protect Lisa from the dirty old man - but I couldn't see into Lisa's psychology to understand why she loved that narcissistic scumbag (instead of a sincere Nice Guy like me, perhaps?).

Now that I'm a dirty old man myself, I can understand the overwhelming attraction of young beauty in a way I couldn't before. Just to keep this skeevy, let me say also that the your giving a voice to Jeanne makes even more fascinating and attractive. ;~)
PS, do you think the movie Guinevere does significantly better at giving the
You describe the whole phenomenon, start to long, depressive, finish, exactly right.
A very poignant description of the parallels of your life and the movie's story.
Actually, I did not know about Maria's passing until now. I want to know more about her.
I could not stop for a moment reading your piece ! Thank you !
Looking forward to reading more from you.