My Cousin Maria Schneider by Vanessa Schneider,
translated by Molly Ringwald

A striking man, his coat open to the Paris chill, howls at the sky as a metro screeches overhead. A much younger woman, one hand grasping her fur-collared white coat over her minidress, the other holding down her hat, hurries by him, but glances back, sensing something amiss.

So begins Last Tango in Paris, the 1972 film the critic Pauline Kael called “the most powerful erotic movie ever made.” The characters soon meet again by chance in an empty apartment for rent. Their relationship quickly descends into one of twisted and anonymous sex that torpedoes their lives; they recognize their genuine connection when it’s too late.

The film, which was X-rated and banned in some countries, is particularly legendary for a harrowing interlude of simulated rape lubricated by a wad of butter. The 19-year-old French ingénue Maria Schneider, who co-starred with 49-year-old Marlon Brando, was ambushed into performing the scene by the film’s director, Bernardo Bertolucci—with Brando’s complicity.

Maria Schneider and Brando in a scene from the film.

The new memoir My Cousin Maria Schneider, by Vanessa Schneider, Maria’s 17-year-younger relative and a veteran journalist for Le Monde, tells a nuanced tale of what it was like to orbit Maria, a “precious, broken family jewel,” and is deftly translated from the French by Molly Ringwald, herself once a teenage acting sensation. Vanessa details the toxic debris from the “rape.” But she begins by revealing Maria’s troubled girlhood, a poisonous prelude.

Maria is born of an affair between 17-year-old Marie Christine Schneider, a neglectful, resentful mother who dumps her for two years with a stranger at age eight, and Daniel Gélin, an older, married French actor. He doesn’t acknowledge Maria’s existence until she seeks him out as a 16-year-old dropout. Then he’s delighted with her budding sexuality and free-spirited companionship during visits to his sets and late nights at the clubs; she appears to be almost more like a conquest than a daughter. And she’s crazy for this new world of movies and the attention it brings.

Maria is cast in Last Tango in Paris after Bertolucci spots her in a photograph with her friend Dominique Sanda, who had appeared in his film The Conformist and was originally slated to play the role but is now pregnant.

Schneider, second from right, with her parents and siblings in 1978.

Vanessa’s own marginally more stable family offers Maria a refuge over the years when her questionable choices catch up with her. Vanessa’s mother, a book editor, is a strict disciplinarian; her father is an ardent left-wing activist. But for the impressionable fangirl who treasures her red folder with press clippings about Maria’s precocious, wild life, the proximity of her fringed bags, high boots, and flea-market outfits is thrilling—until she spies her shooting up or strung out. Left with a “tender and morbid fascination,” Vanessa documents a family somehow contaminated by Maria’s flagrant self-sabotage.

A nuanced tale of what it was like to orbit Maria Schneider, a “precious, broken family jewel.”

Yet Vanessa was—and remained—protective of Maria, who died in 2011. She is frustrated by Maria’s freewheeling, post–Last Tango in Paris interviews, which further peg her as a Lolita. And she unearths evidence of supporters. Jean Seberg hugs Maria in solidarity after the premiere. Brigitte Bardot takes her in, like one of her rescue animals. Brando respects her trauma, and—despite his complicity—they quietly stay in touch.

Nonetheless, Maria succumbs to the tentacles of the degrading experience, and Vanessa—whose original plan was to co-write a memoir with Maria while she was still alive—cannot help by winding her own narrative around it. Yet she’s keenly aware that to entirely ascribe Maria’s downward spiral to Last Tango in Paris, “like a bad tattoo you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to cover up,” strains credulity.

Alongside tales of the extended family’s disintegration, Vanessa recounts Maria’s depression and suicide attempts, fueled by demeaning press, bad butter jokes, and heroin and other drugs.

Jack Nicholson and Schneider in a scene from 1975’s The Passenger.

After a spate of offers requiring nudity—which she refused—Maria worked in low-budget European films after a stay in Los Angeles proved unproductive. (Her erratic behavior eventually made her uninsurable.) Making The Passenger with Jack Nicholson in 1975, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, was an exception Maria cherished.

What isn’t in dispute: Maria’s acting chops. At the time of Last Tango in Paris’s release, Norman Mailer wrote that Maria “shows every promise of becoming a major star.” Kael added that she “carries the whole history of movie passion in her long legs and baby face.”

Maria died at 58 of cancer—not drugs, or suicide—and, as Vanessa is at pains to underscore, with a glass of champagne in her hand and a smile on her lips. Maria was not just a victim. She spent her last years in a committed relationship with a woman and as an advocate for better treatment of women and older actors in cinema. She was proud to have been included in one of Nan Goldin’s photo essays. In a eulogy, Bardot wrote that Maria was “a flaming meteorite pulverizing everything in its way … left by the fame that had abandoned her.”

In 2016, a 2013 interview conducted with Bertolucci at the Cinémathèque Française surfaces. In it, he confesses to the sabotage, suggesting he simply wanted to capture Maria’s unvarnished humiliation. There’s a widespread outcry. Jessica Chastain tweets: “The director planned her attack. I feel sick.” Bertolucci backtracks, claiming the only element of surprise was the butter: “Maria knew everything because she had read the script, where it was all described.”

Vanessa cries foul—Maria always insisted the contrary—and finds Bertolucci’s legacy forever tarnished. By adding dimension to her volatile life, she has instead boosted Maria’s in this clear-eyed memoir.

Patricia Zohn has contributed to numerous publications, including Wallpaper, ArtNet, the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times