I was saddened, with the untimely death of Maria Schneider, who after all was younger than me, to see the way her obituaries tried to build a parallel, if not a cause and effect relationship, between her sometimes unhappy life and the role she played in Last Tango In Paris. Most of the obits referred to her as 'voluptuous', which was fair enough, although she was more 'large-breasted' than voluptuous in a Jayne Mansfield/Gina Lollabrigida sense. One even called her 'pillow-lipped', like some collagened porn star, as if confusing the film's reputation with some modern day interpretation.
The truth was that Schneider's appeal lay in the open innocence of her face, the wide eyes and child-like mouth, quick to pout, which contrasted with the lush softness of her body, as if it were not yet fully-formed. In that sense, she was a Shirley Temple for the Seventies,and in a sense that was what her role in Last Tango was all about. It is indeed a shame that what people remembered was the butter scene, though it's not surprising because the anal rape is meant to be shocking in its humiliation of her. It's sad that this image stuck with her all her life, forcing her to be defined by that moment of raw emotion disguised as explicit sex.
Schneider's Jeanne enters the film in literally full plumage; we have seen Brando (Paul) as a tormented character from a Bacon painting, all twisted up on himself; Jeanne is a creature of fantasy—already indulging her film-maker boyfriend, and trying to be what he wants her to be. Sadly, Jean-Pierre Leaud seems to want nothing from the real Jeanne. Thus the relationship she begins with Brando, for all its anonymity, is one whose desires are 'real', and come from his inside, not from her boyfriend's camera. Much of the movie is a gradual stripping of the plumage from Jeanne, and only after she has broken their rules and he has reduced her completely does Paul realise (or decide, or convince himself) that he is in love.
I'm never sure whether Bertolucci was saying that love is a tango, or that Paul's perception of love is a tango—a ritual whose steps must be followed precisely—but either way it works. If it is Paul's ritual, then we are talking about generational difference, which is the way I felt when I first saw the film in Sweden in 1973. If it's not, it benefits from a brilliant score by Gato Barbieri, which starts in the pain of jazz and blends it into the traditional mystery of the tango. Of course I was rooting for the younger generation, and 'free love', but I was aware that Paul's values, which may have driven his wife to suicide, could also be seen as American, as opposed to European. I've come to think that Bertolucci's intent may have been to make a more general point about love, but here he was caught in the perfect way Schneider fit the role, and the way in which he as a director combined the Leaud and Brando characters when it came to her.
Originally Dominique Sanda, slightly older than Schneider (in fact virtually exactly the same age as I am) was going to play the role, but she would have been more mature, more sophisticated, more an equal rather than an opposite to Brando. Schneider inhabits the role in a way that became dangerous...and the problem went deeper than just her sense of being abused by the director (and to a lesser extent, Brando). Her obits would have you believe she never played in another serious film after Antonioni's The Passenger, and she did make some shlock, but part of the problem is many of her films were never seen in the English-speaking world, and the bigger part of the problem was that she was a star, not an actress, who never got starring roles. Directors saw something in her they could use, and she could give, but she wasn't able to project beyond that—she wasn't given many chances.
The Passenger is almost eerily like like Last Tango—as if Schneider's presence were defining the film. Jack Nicholson, like Brando, loses his identity while with Schneider, and she exists primarily as a way to root his new identity, to create an option he doesn't necessarily realise he wants to take, because it might be following down the same route as his previous life. When I saw it on its re-release last year I was struck by how restrained Schneider's performance seemed to be, as if she were not being asked to do much. She did Rene Clement's The Baby Sitter in 1975, but quit Luis Bunuel's The Obscure Object of Desire (1977), which may have been because he too had a precise vision for her; so precise Bunuel famously needed two actresses to replace her.
By her own account, Schneider wasn't ready to be an international sex object, a second Sylvie Kristal or someone like that. With her erratic upbringing-- her actor father, Daniel Gelin, wouldn't acknowledge her until she was 15, by which time she was a model and extra and had been taken in by Brigitte Bardot. I can recall photos of her after a fight at a lesbian bondage club in the 1970s, stories about drugs and her being committed to institutions (once to be near a lover) and her obits made a big deal about her never revealing the sex of her long-term partner at the end of her life. The last film I saw her in was Zefferelli's Jane Eyre, where Charlotte Gainsbourg, another French 'wild child' whose career has worked out far more successfully, played Jane, and Maria was Mrs. Rochester—suitably mad when she finally made her appearance, but still intriguing enough to make you wonder what she'd seen in William Hurt (ironic, that name) and what Hurt's Rochester had done to her. Or perhaps whether she wasn't just Jeanne living out life as it might have been with Paul, or indeed even with her director boyfriend. The real sadness of Maria Schneider's life was that we never got the chance to see her rise beyond that first iconic role, and we'll keep her locked in that unfurnished apartment in Bir-Hakeim forever.