Anamaria Vartolomei impresses as Last Tango In Paris star Maria Schneider in Jessica Palud’s sensitive biopic

Being Maria

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘Being Maria’

Dir: Jessica Palud. France. 2024. 102mins

As an aspiring young actress, Maria Schneider seemingly could not have asked for a better opportunity: co-starring alongside the legendary Marlon Brando in the highly anticipated Last Tango In Paris. But the experience proved scarring: Schneider never entirely recovered from what she felt was a violation of her by both Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci during one unplanned scene in which her character is raped. Drawing inspiration from Vanessa Schneider’s book about her cousin, Being Maria observes the star before, during and after this pivotal moment. Filmmaker Jessica Palud’s second feature may be uneven, but it hits on something fundamental about its troubled, defiant subject.

 The film advocates for Schneider

Screening as part of the Cannes Premiere section, this sombre biopic is an ideal vehicle for Anamaria Vartolomei, who earned the Cesar for Most Promising Actress for 2020’s Happening. Matt Dillon lends additional commercial muscle playing Brando, and cinephiles will be curious to see the dramatised making of one of the 1970s’ most controversial pictures. The film opens in France on June 19 under the title Maria, and that country’s ongoing #MeToo reckoning makes this a timely tribute to Schneider – who passed away in 2011, aged 58. (All the main players featured are now dead.)

As Being Maria begins, teenage Schneider (Vartolomei) is trying to get her start as an actress, wanting to follow in the footsteps of her father, Daniel Gelin (Yvan Attal). At 19, she lands one of the leads in rising auteur Bernardo Bertolucci’s (Giuseppe Maggio) next picture, the provocative sexual drama Last Tango In Paris. Initially, Schneider loves the improvisational filmmaking style, touched by how Marlon Brando (Dillon) treats her like an equal while offering advice and encouragement. But one day during the shoot, Bertulucci informs her that he wants the scene they’re filming to be more contentious, without revealing to her that he and Brando have conspiratorially decided to have him suddenly hold her down and simulate a rape.

Wisely, Palud (Revenir) spends enough time with Schenider before this harrowing incident to establish her as a three-dimensional character — torn between feuding parents, hungry to prove herself outside of her father’s fame — so that we sense her optimistic spirit and artistic drive. Those early sequences, including ones conveying her initial warm rapport with both Brando and Bertolucci, are crucial, so that it’s apparent how invigorated she was at the prospect of making Last Tango In Paris — only to be devastated by her co-star’s unexpected aggressiveness during the rape scene. That shocking moment of simulated sex is presented unvarnished, shown from Schneider’s terrified perspective, her tears and screams unbidden, her anguish and fear frightenly visceral.

The film takes a narrative risk by following that scene with a more jagged approach from then on. Afterward, we only see Schneider’s life in pieces, the story continually checking back in on the actress over the ensuing years. These brief moments — at the premiere, working on a later picture, falling into addiction — are intentionally disjointed, almost as if the character is as fragmented in her own mind as she appears to us. Although not wholly successful, the strategy creates a disorienting effect as Schneider reels during the decade after Last Tango In Paris when she is attacked in the press and mocked by insensitive viewers, who snidely make ‘butter’ jokes in reference to Brando’s use of the foodstuff on her during the notorious sequence. Vartolomei never allows her portrayal to become one-dimensional, conveying a mixture of rage, pain and sorrow.

While Being Maria condemns Brando and Bertolucci — in fact, Palud worked as an assistant on Bertolucci’s The Dreamers — Dillon’s and Maggio’s performances contain significant shading, which only makes the actions of their characters worse. Palud suggests that Brando and Bertolucci were seeking artistic truth — they didn’t tell her their plan so her reaction could be more ‘real’ — but their blindness to Schneider’s feelings are especially damning because they never considered how aggressive their choice was. Dillon resists doing a Brando impression, but he ably conveys the actor’s otherworldly mystique, humanising the legend just before he behaves reprehensibly.

As Schneider struggles toward personal stability, Being Maria occasionally stumbles, the character’s descent into drugs fairly pro forma for a rise-then-fall biopic. Even during the film’s weakest passages, though, Vartolomei’s layered turn keeps this story emotionally honest, arriving at a guardedly hopeful ending. The film advocates for Schneider, taking the spotlight away from Tango’s male artists and deservedly repositioning it on the woman who has too long been overlooked.

Production companies: Les Films De Mina, StudioCanal, Moteur S’il Vous Plait 

International sales: StudioCanal, 

Producer: Marielle Duigou 

Screenplay: Jessica Palud, Laurette Polmanss, loosely adapted from the novel written by Vanessa Schneider

Cinematography: Sebastien Buchmann

Production design: Valerie Valero

Editing: Thomas Marchand

Music: Benjamin Biolay

Main cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Celeste Brunnquell, Giuseppe Maggio, Yvan Attal, Matt Dillon