#Bookchat August Event Summary: ‘My Cousin Maria Schneider’ by Vanessa Schneider – 2023

In August 2023 #Bookchat discussion events were held online across five time zones with Discussion Moderator – Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan and Coordinator – My French Life Magazine Fondatrice, Judy MacMahon.

A quick introduction to this book:

  • Written by French writer and journalist Vanessa Schneider, and published in France in 2018, it focuses on the life of her cousin, the actress Maria Schneider, and also on the author’s own youth, family, and relationship with Maria.
  • Translated by the actress Molly Ringwald – this was the second book that she had translated from French into English – it was published in the U.S. in April 2023.

The participants in our discussion knew very little about Maria Schneider before reading this book. They were aware of her as an actress who had played the female lead part in Last Tango in Paris, and remember her death in 2011. Two of the participants watched the movie recently because they were reading this book. Both Sherrie and Elisabeth had seen it when it came out in 1972 or 1973. Judy had never seen the film.

Who is the subject of this book?

  • Obviously, Maria Schneider, but also Vanessa (the author.) And any other human mentioned in the book, and the complex web of relationships among all
    these people.

What are the topics/issues broached in this book?

  • It is a historical snapshot of what was going on during those years – feminism, drugs, and political issues.
  • What it means to live in a dysfunctional family, with absent parents, as Maria did. Vanessa’s family was not quite “normal” either. Can you actually grow up and become a “normal” adult when you come from the kind of background that Maria came from?
  • Maria’s having been literally abandoned by her mother and having been fathered by a famous French actor who never recognized her and was pretty much absent from her life was discussed in further depth.
  • The issue of Maria’s partner not being identified was raised. It is definitely not clear why the author chose to call her “A.” It was assumed that it might have been the author’s choice to protect this woman’s privacy.
  • Shira mentioned lyrics from Patti Smith’s song “Maria,” which is about Maria Schneider, and is mentioned in the book: “We didn’t know the precariousness of our young powers, all the emptiness.” There is definitely something about Maria’s naivete at the time when Last Tango in Paris was shot.
  • The topic of Hollywood being very much male-dominated – which created an obvious imbalance of powers at the time – is definitely addressed in this book. Participants mentioned how difficult it is to imagine abandoning a child like Maria’s mother did.

Would Maria’s life have turned out differently, had she never been cast in Last Tango in Paris?

  • Participants felt that Maria did not have a good foundation to turn out well, to have a healthy life, even if she had never been cast in that movie.
  • However, that film was very rough for her to deal with, it involved a great deal of nudity, and even without the infamous rape scene – about which Maria had no prior knowledge before it was shot – she would still have suffered some damage from having been cast in it.
  • But, to make things worse, Maria was set up by the film director, Bernardo Bertolucci, to get that “non-consensual reaction of rage and horror” from her – which is appalling.

Addiction looms large in this book:

  • Not only is Maria a drug addict, but so are her father and her siblings. And it is either hard drugs or alcohol.

Discussion about Molly Ringwald, who translated this book, and her translation:

  • It seems to one participant that Molly Ringwald did insert her own nuances into her translation. Nobody really knew that Molly Ringwald was fluent enough in French to translate a book.
  • When she was asked in a panel discussion if she had found some of the book’s passages triggering, Molly Ringwald answered no, but that she felt very grateful never to have undergone what Maria had. She had a protective family and never experienced this extreme kind of exploitation.

Would this book have been different if Vanessa Schneider had co-authored it with Maria?

  • Both Vanessa and Maria had envisioned writing this book together, but it never happened. It was mentioned that memory is fragile and flawed and that people remember what they are willing to, or can remember. There were things that Maria did not want to get into because they were too painful.
  • One participant thinks that the book would have been more edgy if Maria had been a co-author if it had been written as a first-person narrative.
  • But being the sole author, maybe Vanessa could bring into her book some touchy issues that she could not have mentioned if Maria had been a co-author.

About the book form – it is written as a letter, in the second person singular.

  • This relates to the previous point. The book would not have been written in this fashion if it had been co-written by Vanessa and Maria.
  • And it is its form that makes this book more lovable and poignant, tender and heartbreaking. It gives the book a more intimate quality.
  • A participant mentioned how difficult it was for her to empathize with Maria, and it made it difficult for her to read this book.
  • It is also easier to empathize with Vanessa than with Maria, because she was so young and so puzzled, if not horrified by some of her cousin’s behaviors.

On the fact that Vanessa Schneider has never seen Last Tango in Paris:

  • This is due to the fact that there is a very strong taboo surrounding this film in her family, and she still respects this taboo. And it may be too painful for her to watch it anyway. Especially considering the impact that this movie had on her entire family.

Would the book have been different if it had been written after the #MeToo movement was in full force?

  • Most likely… was the general opinion. One participant who had watched the movie before reading the book had found it rather fascinating, even somewhat enjoyable, in an odd way, and then, she read the Jessica Chastain quote stating that one cannot possibly find this movie good since a good part of it was non-consensual. And then, she felt awful about her initial reaction to the movie.
  • Bertolucci apologized to Maria, but after her death, and then it was too late and, anyway, as Vanessa put it, she would not have wanted his apology and his kisses.

What do the French think about his book?

  • People in France tend to be more polarized about the #MeToo movement than Americans are, but Elisabeth mentioned that she really did not know anything about this book’s reception in France. She will try and ask her French friends and relatives.

What does it mean to tell the truth about oneself or anyone else, is it possible?

  • There are facts that are undeniable – you know they happened, when, and where. But the minute you insert some subjectivity into a narrative, then it is your truth. And that truth is not everybody’s truth.
  • Perspective memory or selective memory has a lot to do with the way people tell their truth or accept, or don’t accept someone else’s truth. It is complex. Look at siblings who have very different recollections about their common past. They even come to wonder whether they grew up in the same family.

Final thoughts on the book:

  • A couple of participants would never have chosen to read that book, for lack of interest in ‘Hollywood shenanigans,’ but they managed to get into it anyway, because of the way it was structured and written.
  • It was interesting from a historical perspective.
  • One participant who is a movie buff enjoyed becoming better acquainted with Last Tango in Paris and Maria Schneider and even watched The Passenger, one of her other films. Having read this book opened more doors for this cinephile.
  • It was a beautifully written book, kind of a eulogy. You can truly feel Vanessa’s love for her cousin when she goes to Los Angeles and muses about “breathing the same air that she had breathed, bathing in the same light.” It is the kind of feeling that you experience when you have lost someone close to you.
  • It is definitely a multilayered book, with a lot to unpack, even though it was a relatively short book and an easy read.

Thanks go to all participants for contributing to the success of #Bookchat discussions!

*See below for Further Reading links

Here’s how to join future #Bookchat events

  1. JOIN the MyFrenchLife Private Community Group on Facebook and then post that you’d like to join #Bookchat, you’ll be given a link. Both are private groups to enable members to feel relaxed in sharing their views openly.
  2. JOIN #Bookchat MyFrenchLife™on Substack

Once you have joined either of these, you will receive notifications, receive articles, and be invited to join online LIVE text chats and online Video events. We look forward to you joining us.

Further Reading:
1. “Why Molly Ringwald translated an infamous story of film exploitation,
The Washington Post, April 16, 2023

2. PBS interview of Vanessa Schneider and Molly Ringwald
“Journalist’s memoir portrays Maria Schneider’s life beyond ‘Last Tango in Paris’”
Journalist’s memoir portrays Maria Schneider’s life beyond ‘Last Tango in Paris’ | PBS News Weekend

3. Vanessa Schneider and Molly Ringwald discuss female representation and experience in the film industry.
Villa Albertine, New York City Via YouTube.

3. Molly Ringwald Finds the Right Words
The actor and writer talks to Shondaland about translating “My Cousin Maria Schneider,” Vanessa Schneider’s reverent book of essays, from French to English, and what she’s up to next.”

4. “For ‘Last Tango’ Actress, the Ugly Aftermath of Notoriety
In a troubling new memoir, Vanessa Schneider contends that the sexually explicit 1972 film exploited, and irrevocably hurt, her cousin.”
New York Times review of My Cousin, Maria Schneider, May 24, 2023 (gift article)

5. All the Other Harvey Weinsteins
By Molly Ringwald,
The New Yorker, October 17, 2017

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About the Contributor

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I am a native of France, and a retired French university professor living in the USA. I return to France every year and love discovering new places I have not yet visited. I am interested in issues of bilingualism and expatriate identity. I enjoy good food, great books, and all kinds of music.

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