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