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Jessica Palud’s Flawed Maria Schneider Biopic

Jessica Palud’s Flawed Maria Schneider Biopic

When New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote a long and heated rave of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris after its premiere in 1972, she stated, among other things, that “this is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies.”

Kael may have been overdoing it when she stressed Last Tango‘s monumental importance, claiming it was a “movie breakthrough” and that it “altered the face of the art form.” But in terms of people arguing years later about the film’s legacy, she was spot-on.

Being Maria

The Bottom Line

Doesn’t do full justice to its compelling subject.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Première)
Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Matt Dillon, Giuseppe Maggio, Céleste Brunnquell, Yvan Attal, Marie Gillain
Director: Jessica Palud
Screenwriters: Jessica Palud, Laurette Polmanss

1 hour 42 minutes

Cast in point: Being Maria, a new biopic of tormented French actress Maria Schneider, who at age 19 starred opposite Marlon Brando in the Bertolucci movie — a feat that launched her career as a promising new international actress while destroying her life at the same time.

The reasons for this are well known, and resurfaced over the past decade alongside the many #MeToo scandals that rocked the film world: For the infamous sequence in Last Tango in which Brando’s character, Paul, anally rapes Schneider’s character, Jeanne, using butter as a lubricant, the actress was never forewarned — the scene wasn’t in the original script — nor was she asked for consent. Brando and Bertolucci conspired to take her by surprise, and while the sodomy was simulated, the butter was real, and the entire humiliating experience would have a life-changing effect on Schneider.

Being Maria, directed by Jessica Palud (Revenir), who adapted the script from a book by Vanessa Schneider — a journalist for Le Monde and Maria’s niece — is built entirely around that pivotal incident, both for better and for worse. Like the actress herself, whose life and career exploded with Last Tango’s success while unraveling at the same time, the movie loses its way after the scandal surrounding Bertolucci’s film fizzles out.

Before then, Palud paints a convincing portrait of a young woman from a troubled background whose connection to the movies was more personal than professional. When we first meet Maria (the excellent Anamaria Vartolomei from Happening), she’s on a film set admiring the work of her estranged father, the actor Daniel Gélin (Yvan Attal), who abandoned her as a child.

The girl is already 16 and lives with her mom (Marie Gillian), a former model who raised her daughter alone and doesn’t want Maria going anywhere near her dad. When she finds out the two are getting to know each other, she explodes with rage and viciously kicks Maria out of the house, which would wind up inadvertently propelling her daughter into stardom.

Through the help of Daniel, Maria starts working as an actress, playing small roles in a handful of films. Soon she’s 19-years-old and sitting in a café opposite Bertolucci (Giuseppe Maggio), who’s decided to cast her in Last Tango, studying her like a caged tiger fascinated by its prey. Bertolucci fans beware: The director comes across here as a pompous and careless prima donna.

Brando (played quite convincingly by a heavily made-up Matt Dillon) is much more charming and paternalistic, initially taking Maria under his wing to show her the ropes of his profession. In one early scene they shoot together, Maris admires how Brando manages to shed real tears on set, to which he responds: “I wasn’t acting.”

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This comes back to bite Maria big time when we arrive at the rape scene and the actress is caught completely off-guard. She trusted both Brando and Bertolucci, but the two wanted her reaction to be so real that they deliberately failed to warn her. After the scene is in the can and Schneider storms off to cry in her dressing room, she’s forced to come back and shoot the second part of the sequence. Like a pro, she does it, and nobody apologizes to her. The best Brando can say is: “It’s only a film.”

Palud, who previously worked on movie shoots as an assistant — including, ironically, on Bertolucci’s 2003 explicit three-way romance, The Dreamers — recreates the Last Tango production with both authenticity and emotional aplomb. The fatherless Maria finds a surrogate dad in Brando, only to be sadistically betrayed by him, in an act that would wind up breaking her. No matter how successful Last Tango would become, Maria would only remember that scene.

The problem with the film is that that scene happens about a half hour in, after which we’re left with a downward and rather predictable spiral that fails to maintain our interest. We see Schneider losing it soon after Last Tango becomes a scandalous sensation — it received an X-rating in the U.S. and was legally banned in Italy, where all prints of the film were burned — partying all night long, dating a heroin addict and becoming one herself, nodding off on set and failing to remember her lines.

Vartolomei is a compelling actress and the camera truly loves her, but there’s only so much she can do with a script that doesn’t have much of a second or third act. Had Palud set the entire movie around the Last Tango shoot and its immediate aftermath, the drama would have perhaps been more compact. Instead, we’re left watching Maria dance in lots of nightclubs, go through withdrawal, get hospitalized, fall in love with a young film student (Céleste Brunnquell) doing a thesis on women in movies, and try to kick her habit for good. Plenty of stuff happens, but there’s no real arc to sustain the material.

This doesn’t mean Being Maria lacks value, as a film about how some major films should be reconsidered in light of our evolving standards. Not everyone loves the idea of an on-set intimacy coordinator, but Schneider certainly could have used one on Last Tango. Sure, the scene might have been less jarring in the end, but Bertolucci might not have traumatized his actress for life.

Palud’s film asks us to contemplate whether art should always truimph over real people, using Maria Schneider’s sad true story as proof that certain things aren’t worth doing to make a “movie breakthrough.”

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