[Scribner; 2024]

Tr. from the French by Molly Ringwald

When, halfway through Last Tango in Paris (1972), Jeanne screams at her hapless documentarian fiancée in an empty train station: “I’m tired of being raped!,” it’s hard not to register a sort of irony. The director Bernardo Bertolucci may well be dropping some commentary on the process of making the film itself. And Maria Schneider—the actress playing Jeanne—may be screaming at the actual filmmaker. It feels like a behind-the-scenes blooper, except there’s no jarring sound effect tacked onto the excerpt, as in a YouTube video, or shocked, set-rattling gasps from a live studio audience. The actor/character has true hatred and exasperation in her voice. Jeanne’s fiancée, Tom, documents her every move, suffocating her in his attempt to “know” her. The bitter undercurrent of their young relationship appears early on, providing the backdrop for the tumultuous affair at the heart of the film. The pretentious Tom, after finishing a television assignment in Paris, insists on directing a cinéma vérité documentary about Jeanne and her father, a well-known war hero. Tom’s love for Jeanne comes second to his desire to offer the story of her family as faux intellectual fodder for a film audience. In reality, Bertolucci committed an even more egregious crime against the young Maria.

In a now famous interview, Schneider candidly discusses the ways the film scarred her for life. Last Tango in Paris’ notorious scene made her feel “raped,” violated and manipulated by two older and much more powerful men. As I rewatched the film with Vanessa Schneider’s stunning memoir My Cousin Maria Schneider in mind, I vividly understood what she meant. I began to read the film in much the same way as I read the book itself—a study on the intimate power of a watchful gaze.

It feels wrong to start a review of a book on Schneider’s life with a callback to the film that caused her such pain, but parts of her legacy remain deeply intertwined with Last Tango in Paris. While the film made her a notorious figure, the truth is that it wouldn’t have touched so many moviegoers had it not been for her formidable presence. Everyone talks of Brando, the ways his performance forever changed film acting, but few consider the role of his screen partner. In films like Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), or Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round (1981), Schneider is a sensitive and charismatic performer—her potential burns bright. Even as she became increasingly disillusioned with the film industry, she continued to take on challenging roles well into the early 2000s, before illness rendered performance impossible. Cinephiles have been taken by Maria’s tragic story, when they pay her any mind at all. As Vanessa Schneider points out, the actor’s life was indeed harsh and sorrowful, but when her addictions subsided, she generously offered everything of herself to film—and to the loved ones in her orbit.

The book is also an important reminder of the French audience’s loving regard for the actor. Yes, the tabloids in France were at times equally as vicious as those based in English-speaking countries, but they did not sweep Maria Schneider’s entire cinematic oeuvre under the rug. In 2010, Maria received an award from the French government for her artistic accomplishments (the Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, to be exact), and, beyond a cynical article or two in her later years, journalists and critics in France did not seem as eager to join the pile-on as in other countries. Moira Sullivan noted in her 2011 tribute: “Directors, writers, artists and actors knew her real work, knew her capability, in France and abroad.” While she is still remembered for the impertinent press interviews she gave in the wake of the moral panic surrounding Last Tango in Paris, Maria contributed a great deal to the cinematic art—a fact obvious to anyone who is willing to look.

Vanessa Schneider, a French journalist and political writer, offers a powerful love letter to her larger-than-life relative in My Cousin Maria Schneider. The writer describes a close family marked by tragedy from the outset, with decades of untreated mental illness and unspoken secrets lurking in the shadows. She describes moments of joy, too. From pastoral childhood adventures far from the bustle of Paris, to her loving parents providing much-needed solace and grounding for the young Maria, the memoir paints a detailed portrait of familial closeness that eschews the flat, one-dimensional retelling of a brood in perpetual crisis. By drawing inspiration from an epistolary framework, Vanessa’s book moves beyond the confines of a traditional biography. Schneider acknowledges that she can’t tell Maria’s story in the same way that Maria herself would have, and Vanessa’s account of her cousin’s life is permeated by her own perspective. Traces of a slightly different story emerge, one of a writer growing up in the shadow of her much more famous and self-destructive cousin; a young woman who tries to hide her multiracial identity, attempting to pass in bourgeois society while the fearless Maria doesn’t try to hide her imperfections, her out of control addiction, her sexuality, her pain. As Vanessa writes of her obsession: “I find that every time I try to stop thinking about you, you hook me again.” The title of the memoir itself hints at the eventual emergence of this deeply personal and possessive approach (“my cousin”).

Film historian Richard Dyer once wrote that “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us, and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people.” His theory can explain part of Maria’s early notoriety, as she (unwillingly) played a part in bringing the countercultural hedonism of the early 1970s into the mainstream through her role in the explicit Last Tango in Paris. But Dyer’s note also explains what Maria meant to someone who loved her as deeply as her cousin did. Maria embodied rebellious qualities Vanessa could only briefly flirt with. Despite their closeness, she remained a haunting enigma in her life, and Vanessa notes “the many mysteries you [Maria] took away with you [her].”

As it happens, the translator of this spare and elegant memoir is Molly Ringwald, an iconoclast of an entirely different style and era. Beloved for her star turn in a number of 1980s John Hughes vehicles, Ringwald is a canny translator for this work, one who adds another layer of commentary on stardom and the perils of the film industry. She brings a sensitivity to Vanessa’s and Maria’s story in English that would have slipped through the hands of someone further removed from the topic. The “you” Vanessa employs bears an additional texture in Ringwald’s work, conveying a particular level of intimacy given what we know of the translator’s Hollywood career. Two cousins mirroring each other; an actor mirroring both through the act of translation.

Film stars are economic products meant for popular consumption. But what happens when that star doesn’t follow the script? What happens when they—particular young women—refuse the passive role assigned to them? The beats are fairly well known at this point: it begins with the public shunning and shaming, the endless stream of mockery, and then, finally, quiet disregard. Maria did not have the tools to deal with the tremendous fallout from Last Tango in Paris and the infamous “butter scene.” She did not have the tools to fight against the sudden change in script Brando and Bertolucci threw at her, nor was she aware of her rights as an actor. In an interview from 1983, Maria criticized how the industry treated its women long before this became a widely discussed topic. “You need to be right in the head” to handle the enormous pressure of acting, she noted. Otherwise—she seems to suggest—the possibility of self-destruction looms large.

My Cousin Maria Schneider brings to mind the autobiography of another forgotten star who quickly fell under the spell of addiction—Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed (1963). That book has developed a sort of cult following, and with good reason. It’s heartrending, shocking, and vulnerable in the extreme. It’s also not written by the actor herself, but by Leo Guild, a “journalist” who was deeply concerned with Hollywood’s sleazy underbelly. After he discovers Payton languishing in a Hollywood flophouse, he starts bringing her cases of cheap wine and dutifully records her story. In his introduction, Guild claims to have transcribed Payton’s surreal descent into alcoholism with few embellishments. Based on what little we know of Payton, it seems that Guild may have indeed faithfully captured her life without needlessly wallowing in its more seedy aspects. But this example raises a larger question: who owns the memory of a film star? People who become as notorious as Barbara Payton see their stories fall—practically if not legally—into the public domain. If we are to take Guild’s word, Payton shared her story on her own terms. But what of Maria Schneider? Much written about the actor is told through the lens of an oppressive male gaze—Richard Corliss’s 2011 elegy to “dead sex kittens” is an unfortunate example. Vanessa’s memoir escapes this trap, and is a vital corrective on her cousin’s legacy. She tackles many of Maria’s troubles with honesty and clarity, correcting the record on the abuse her cousin suffered at the hands of Bertolucci and the media. But we are consistently reminded that the story we hold in our hands would not have been the one Maria would choose to tell. In this lovely homage to her cousin, Vanessa remains self-conscious, repeatedly reflecting on the fact that Maria would not have enjoyed much of this retelling. While she wanted to collaborate with Vanessa on an autobiography years before she died, Maria eventually reneged, uncomfortable with the prospect of excavating deep wounds for a new audience. She was burned by the public once—why make herself vulnerable again?

Discomfitingly, Maria occasionally appears to be a cipher in this book, representative of other concerns. For example, the actor’s politics were famously conservative and hawkish in many respects, and her increasing lurch towards the right over the years seems to echo Vanessa’s father’s own political trajectory from ardent revolutionary to cog in the wheel of the petite bourgeoisie establishment, much to the writer’s bemusement. Perhaps a story told through the prism of deep love will always be molded to the contours of its creator; a twinning of subject and author.

Writing about someone else—even if it’s someone you love—can be a violent act, a flattening of the person’s identity to fit your own rubric or point of view. With its undeniably subjective approach, My Cousin Maria Schneider could have been yet another dismal over-interpretation of a woman’s personal tragedies. Instead, the memoir is a clear-eyed account of addiction, an indictment of the film industry and its treatment of women, a deep study on the impact of generational trauma, and a tract on the durability of familial bonds. Sadly, many questions are left unanswered, and the heavy mysteries of Maria’s life remain. I suppose that’s fitting, given that we never know the people we love as intimately as we think we do. This bittersweet tribute to Maria’s legacy underlines that haunting truth. If only we could have had the opportunity to read her writing. What would she have shared with us?

Yasmin Desouki is an audiovisual archivist, writer, and curator.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.