Maria Schneider & One Summer Afternoon on Long Island
By Franklin P. Laviola
I first encountered Maria Schneider on a lazy June afternoon. It was the summer before going to college, and that morning I had participated in my first (and only) game of paintball, out on the East End of Long Island. The event, organized by my very spirited AP Physics teacher Ed Baumann, was designed (I imagine) to reward us recent graduates with a chance to finally let off some steam, while also providing us with a hyper-real lesson in projectiles and vectors. All fun and learning aside, the game left me drained and, worse, emblazoned with multiple welts of varying sizes, scattered across my chest, all of them quite painful.
A good friend gave me a ride home and on the way I noticed a copy of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, resting on his backseat in a sterile Blockbuster Video case. I was already a fan of Bertolucci, having seen The Last Emperor at a young age and The Conformist the year before, very late one night on Showtime or Cinemax. I knew about Last Tango in Paris and was familiar with its place in film history — a notorious early ‘70s art house hit, bordering on pornography (by most expert and layperson accounts), made all the more shocking in that it featured one of the world‘s biggest and most respected movie stars. I had seen several sexy stills in film books (the internet was still in its incipient stages and more extensive content was not yet readily available), but never the film itself. I was certainly eager to see it, but, according to my standards, it had to be in its proper uncut and X-rated form, when I eventually did. The only known copy, circulating in my immediate area, however, was the R-rated edition and it was presently at my fingertips, staring up at me, and waiting. For whatever the reason — tremendous curiosity, a bit of envy that my friend had gotten to it first, post-paintball delirium — I defied my principles and gave into temptation.
I had the house to myself, but only for a few hours before my mother returned home from work. Quickly, I grabbed an icepack from the freezer, popped the cassette into the VCR, sprawled myself out on the living room couch, and pressed “play.” Just as I noticed that the welts on my chest were now uniformly enormous, Last Tango in Paris began. From the very first moments of the Francis Bacon paintings, accompanied by Gato Barbieri’s jazz score, immediately followed by Marlon Brando’s primal scream under the elevated train, I was hooked. What began as a ridiculous day had suddenly transitioned into something more profound. It was all there on the tv screen — Vittorio Storaro’s brilliant cinematography, the shocking red of Brando’s wife’s blood in the bathtub post-suicide, the rawness and violence of the emotions.
And then there was Maria Schneider. With her round pixie face, innocent eyes, and heavenly body, she was a vision. Brando’s angst might have been the identification point and his performance nothing less than spellbinding throughout, but Schneider’s beauty and uniquely natural presence contributed immensely to the film’s power. By the time it had ended that afternoon, with Schneider shooting Brando dead, I was completely exhilarated and had forgotten all about my welts and their silly origins.
Last Tango in Paris would haunt me for the rest of that summer and follow me to college. In fact, early that fall, one of the very first purchases I ever made on my extremely limited freshman allowance was an uncut X-rated VHS copy of the film in the basement of Tower Records. I remember strolling down to 66th Street and Broadway one Friday afternoon after class and then walking all the way back to my dorm at sunset, thrilled at my acquisition and the night that lay ahead. I borrowed the floor VCR from the RA on duty and then sat down to watch the film in the empty lounge.
This time around the film’s inexorable flow would not be interrupted. When the “butter scene” arrived, there would be no giant lamp (looking more like a cartoonish red blob), placed on screen to obscure what Bertolucci had intended — a Bacon painting come to life. The film retained every bit of its power, and, on this second viewing, I took greater notice of the Maria Schneider character’s own story arc and those scenes, involving her filmmaker fiance, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, and her home life. My personal copy of Last Tango in Paris would become something of a prized possession, adorning the bookshelf above my desk, all throughout my college years.