Image Credit: Everett CollectionI felt a special pang of nostalgic melancholy when I learned, on Thursday, that Maria Schneider had died of cancer. She was only 58, but what highlighted the sadness of her passing is that there’s one role that, for a lot of us, will define her forever, and in that one role she incarnated the spirit and beauty and giggly bloom of youth. Yes, she was good in a few other movies (notably The Passenger), but to me she will always be Jeanne, the baby-cheeked Parisian dumpling of Last Tango in Paris (1972), who descends into a torrid three-day tryst/dance/relationship/psychodrama with a desolate middle-aged widower played by Marlon Brando. Schneider was only 19, an unknown model-slash-actress with just a single movie role behind her, when director Bernardo Bertolucci cast her opposite the most legendary movie star in the world, who at that moment was on his way back to becoming the greatest screen actor in the world. More than just a movie, Last Tango would be a study — of sexual desire, of midlife agony, of Brando himself, of freedom and loss, of what movies could really be if they opened up, more than ever, to the actors who lived inside them.

The casting of Last Tango was, in its way, an audacious stunt that paid off almost more than Bertolucci might have hoped for. He mixed the two lead actors like dangerous chemicals plucked from different laboratory shelves. Brando had made his movie debut, in The Men, 22 years before, but because he had come up through the Hollywood studio system, and had rebelled against its restrictions, and had seen its collapse, it was as if he had already lived nine lives. (With The Godfather the year before, his comeback was one of the most dramatic in movie history.) He now seemed a majestic hunk of experience. Everything about his presence — the famous voice, the thousand-yard stare into the overcast Paris skies, the hair now swept back and thinning, the profile sculptured and weathered but still hawkishly handsome — spoke of a life that had been consumed, at great pleasure and at great cost.

Whereas Maria Schneider, with her mop of curls, her soft bubble face, her adorable French-accented English, was unmarked and untroubled, laughing yet disaffected, not just post-Brando but post-1960s, a living embodiment of the first “Whatever!” generation. Throwing these two together could have been a disaster, because Schneider’s first job in Last Tango was to be a kitten, a babe, a girl who looked smashing in a white fur collar, a sponge of innocence who could soak up Brando’s gravitas. And that she did from the opening scene, the famous and slightly ominous “zipless f—” in an empty, unrented flat, in which Jeanne gives herself over to Brando’s Paul (who carries her over to the wall like a caveman), because she’s got nothing else to do, and why not? In the hands of another filmmaker, the movie that followed, in which the two agree to keep meeting to continue their affair back at the apartment, without exchanging so much as their first names, might have been hopelessly out of balance and out of whack: Brando acting up a s—storm while the amateur model-slash-actress stared, blankly, and looked hot.

But Bertolucci, letting both his actors improvise, turned the emotive, erotically charged tango of Schneider and Brando into a youth-meets-age, Europe-meets-America, fame-meets-stardom, life-meets-death duet that’s as resonant and provocative and memorable as the one Godard had staged a decade before between Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Schneider wasn’t going to play Jeanne as a lamb to the slaughter. Squaring off against Brando’s Paul, she was going to get the better of this man, to use him as much as he used her. As the movie went on, her playfulness and sensual nonchalance kept unfolding, as the girl let down her mask and the woman inside was revealed – was, in a way, born right then and there.

The first time I saw Last Tango, I was 14 (I wouldn’t have been allowed into a commercial theater — I had to catch it at a campus film society showing in Ann Arbor), and I admit that my first reaction to the movie boiled down to this: Wow, it wasn’t nearly as sexy as the stills from it in that Playboy “Sex in Cinema” feature. Viewed as something scandalous and titillating, as a salacious art-house turn-on (it was, after all, rated X), Last Tango, to my teenage eyes and libido, was a major disappointment. Yet it’s almost as if I went for the thrill and stayed for the intrigue, for the slow-building Marlon Brando opera of meltdown and catharsis. My youthful reaction captures something, I think, about how art films worked back then, and about how they’ve changed. Sex, so often, was their calling card — not because they were glorified porn, but because they reveled in the transcendence (and pain) of desire. Deny it all you want, but that, as much as anything, is why art films once mattered.

Last Tango in Paris is a movie that has often been obscured by its status as a cultural punchline (“Get the butter”), but in case you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. It captures the sexual war, and the agony of broken mid-life dreams, more than any film I can think of. Maria Schneider’s Jeanne, a French hippie-princess who seems to learn who she is as the movie goes on, ends the film on a balcony, talking to herself, holding the gun she has just fired. Those three days will be with her forever, yet now she has her whole life to live. And that’s how I’ll always remember Maria Schneider: as the girl who tangled with Marlon Brando, and lived — forever — to tell the tale.

For those who’ve seen Last Tango in Paris, what are your feelings about it? Your memories of it? And what, if any other, roles did you like Maria Schneider in?

Last Tango in Paris
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