A moving biopic about Maria Schneider

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“Being Maria” is a flawed but fascinating look at the turbulent life of actor Maria Schneider, played by a game Anamaria Vartolomei (“Happening”). It chronicles her rebellious teenage years, her big break at age 19 in Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘Last Tango in Paris’, and how her on-set trauma and the film’s fame affected her later career and mental health. Helmer Jessica Palud (“Back Home”) and co-scripter Laurette Polmanss loosely adapt a memoir by Schneider’s younger cousin to show the events through the star’s eyes. Despite an awkward air of seriousness and some soap opera-like scenes, plus the all-too-familiar arc of a celebrity gone wrong, the film resonates because its central subject is so timely. It is a cautionary tale about a naive and powerless young talent abused in the name of art, and the painful aftermath of her abuse.

The story depicts formative events in Maria’s life from 1967 to 1980. Raised by a tightly wound single mother (Marie Gillain), she is depicted as someone seeking praise, love and acceptance. At the age of 15, she contacts her biological father, the famous French actor Daniel Gélin (Yvan Attal). Her continued association with him and his friends, such as Alain Delon, causes her unstable mother to throw her out. Maria finds help from her uncle Michel (Jonathan Couzinie) and eventually from a Parisian agent (Stanislas Merhar), along with small roles in film and on stage.

When groundbreaking Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (Giuseppe Maggio) is drawn to something off about her, and casts her to star opposite American superstar Marlon Brando (an excellent Matt Dillon), she thinks her dream of success is within reach. But Bertolucci, who is on a roll after ‘The Conformist’, sees her more as a blank page he can manipulate, and Maggio perfectly embodies the seductive qualities of the charismatic young author. Although she reads the script and agrees to the required nudity, Bertolucci encourages his idol Brando to improvise and go further with the violence his character inflicts on hers.

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Palud, once an assistant to Bertolucci (and, according to press reports, in possession of the original recording script of “Last Tango”) spends almost 30 minutes simulating the rehearsals and recordings. While Brando is protected and cared for, the vulnerable, often unclothed Maria has to work fourteen hours a day and on weekends. During an intimate bathtub scene, Brando suddenly pushes her head underwater, prompting surprise and anger. It foreshadows the infamous improvised “butter scene,” in which Brando’s character humiliates and sodomizes hers. Although the sex is not real, Maria’s tears and mortification are. Perhaps some of the mostly male crew members watching feel her pain, but no one comforts her. Furthermore, neither Brando nor Bertolucci apologize for subjecting her to this hard-to-watch, unscripted moment.

When the film is released, its raw sexuality creates a firestorm within the media and the public. Sensitive Maria is suddenly the center of attention and vitriol without any advice or training in how to deal with it. When she admits to a journalist that the sodomy scene surprised her, her cynical agent scolds her, saying, “Your job is to sell the dream to the press.” Think of it as a performance.” Even her own father dismisses her feelings and tells her how great it is that she can become a famous actress with just one role.

The remaining 45 minutes of the film prove less interesting and more melodramatic. They show that the depressed Maria’s life is spiraling out of control. She sleeps around and takes male and female lovers with her, with Noor (Celeste Brunnquell) being one of the most caring of them. Maria is addicted to heroin and gains a reputation for being difficult on set. She is mainly offered sex kitten roles that require nudity and storms out of a production more than once. The film ends in 1980, after her appearance in Jacques Rivette’s “Merry-Go-Round,” a title that refers to a full-circle moment that concludes the proceedings.

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Depicting the world through Maria’s eyes, using close-ups of her face for the most part, masks a certain impoverishment in the production design. It appears that most of the film’s budget went toward period costumes and certain period songs, such as Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Benjamin Biolay’s thriller-like string score is used sparingly.

Strangely, the film ends without any indication that Maria lived another 31 years, appearing in more than 30 other film and television productions, before dying of breast cancer in 2011. However, at least it shows that unlike other stars of the era, she spoke out about her mistreatment even though she was ignored, or worse, ostracized.

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