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“Maria Was Saying Things in 1983 That Were Not Addressed by Actresses Until Decades Later”: Elisabeth Subrin on Her Cannes-Premiering Short, Maria Schneider, 1983

Manal Issa in Maria Schneider 1983

Researching the life and career of Maria Schneider (The Passenger, Last Tango in Paris) for a larger project, filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin discovered a brief interview the actress gave in 1983 for the French TV show Cinéma Cinéma. It’s a conversation alternately defiant and mournful, with Schneider reflecting with real critical awareness upon the gendered power structures of the film industry as well as the violations she experienced living and working within it — including, in one painful section, on the set of Last Tango in Paris.

Subrin used the interview as the basis for a 60-second short that was a part of Strand Releasing’s 30th Anniversary compilation, and now it is the basis for her longer, 25-minute work, Maria Schneider, 1983, that premiered today at the Cannes Film Festival in the Director’s Fortnight section. Recalling Subrin’s use of archival footage and reenactment in her 1997 Shulie, Maria Schneider, 1983 deploys the contributions of three actresses — Manal Issa, Aïssa Maïga and Isabel Sandoval — to create a dialogue that carries Schneider’s words across generations.

To interview Subrin, we asked artist and filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, a Filmmaker 2021 25 New Face as well former student of Subrin’s at Temple University. (Disclosure: I produced Subrin’s feature A Woman, A Part.) –– Scott Macaulay

Hunt-Ehrlich: Elisabeth, I’m really excited to speak with you about your beautiful film on this occasion. Your short, Maria Schneider, 1983, will premiere in Cannes, and it’s been a long journey for you as you have been researching and writing around Maria’s life for a few years. What led you to Maria and this journey?  

Subrin: The paperback for Last Tango in Paris was in my parents’s den, and I probably read it too young — I had kind of creepy feelings about it. Then I knew [about Maria] because I’ve always been obsessed with ‘70s politics, fashion and cinema, and she was such an alluring, mysterious figure in the ‘70s film landscape. In 2008 I was commisioned with some other filmmakers to [adapt] an unrealized script by Antonioni called Technically Sweet, which was to star Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider. The script moves between two time periods and is really brilliant, but it couldn’t get made because it takes place in the Amazon, and Nicholson didn’t want to spent a few months there. Also, [Antonioni] wanted to use early video technology, so instead he made The Passenger. But that’s when I started doing research on Maria. I made an experimental adaptation of the screenplay and cast Gaby Hoffman playing both Maria’s character and Nicholson’s character. It’s a kind of psychodrama between two states of mind, a problematic love affair. 

And then I put [my interest in Maria] aside. I wrote screenplays, I made films, and when I was working on getting A Woman, A Part financed, I kept getting the question, “Who cares about actresses? It’s a great script, but why do we want to make a film about a 40-something burnt-out actress?” So in 2014 I started a blog, “Who Cares about Actresses,” and I dedicated it to Maria. After A Woman, A Part I needed another project, and, I thought, “I need to make a biography about Maria because her actual life and that tired [media] narrative about her are at such odds with each other.” I did an initial resarch trip to Paris and met her partner, and then started meeting [others who knew and worked with her]. At a certain point, I realized, I have to live in Paris to do this. That’s when I found the producer [Helen Olive] and pitched this idea of a short because, in the archives, I had found this seven-minute interview with her from 1983 that I found very compelling and problematic. 

Hunt-Ehrlich: I remember your blog — you were doing such incredible work valuing these actresses from cinematic history. Actresses are put on this pedastal, or experience a certain kind of social worship, but it’s a very dehumanizing worship. It has a violence to it that replicates some of the ways that all women experience social violence. So it’s interesting that this film comes out of that. And across your work over decades, your subject has been performance, including in Shulie, of course, where you were recreating with great fidelity an archival film [featuring Shulamith Firestone] to A Woman, A Part, where acting is narratively examined. Could you speak about your casting process and your collaborations with these actresses, which seems like the heart of the work?

Subrin: It goes back to Shulie. I never went to film school. I was in an experimental, avant-garde film program in an art school. I studied video art, and the last thing I ever thought I would do is make narrative films. Late in the game of making Shulie, I thought, “Wow, I’m directing right now. I’m working with actors.” And when I premiered that film, it was so different than what you were seeing in the experimental sidebars of film festivals — people were not working with actors, and narrative was really the devil. 

I really loved working with actors, with human beings, and working with emotions. I think I started writing screenplays to be more directly involved in emotional journeys, for lack of a better word. Working with actors… how can I describe it briefly? It’s really about connecting on a very deep, emotional level. The degree of empathy that actors have to have to connect to characters is so beautiful and so respectful. There’s this kind of transmission, almost this spiritual part of them entering another experience…

And with the three actresses I worked with for Maria Schneider, I had that same experience. Initially I thought I was going to work with one actress for a seven-minute reenactment. When I decided to expand the project, I wanted actresses who have a political voice in their relationship to acting, in their relationship to being a public figure — actors for whom the world matters as much as being an actor. So, in the case of Manal Issa, she’s a French Lebanese actor, and it’s her relationship to Middle East politics and Palestine. Aïssa Maïga in a kind of elegant and charming way eviscerated the French film industry at the 2020 Cesars and has made a documentary abou the representation of Black actors in France, the U.S. and Brazil. And Isabel Sandoval has always been vocal about the limitations of trans representation in contemporary cinema. Choosing actresses who have a feminist, intersectional, critical view of the world and of the [film] industry allowed us to be in the shared space of both empathy and critique.

Hunt-Ehrlich: This film is a French co-production, and the script is mostly in French. Could you talk a little about this experience as an American director within the French film industry?

Subrin: It’s actually a French film, although some of the financing comes from the U.S. It was produced by a French company solely. My producer, Helen Olive, of 5 à 7 Films, is British but has been working in the French film industry since her 20s. I was the only American on the set. Two years ago I told Helen about the challenge of creating a balanced set in terms of gender, race, ethnicity. Apologies to the French, but I knew it would be a lot harder in Paris, and we worked really hard to create a set that reflected the ideas we were dealing with in the film. But being the only American, what made it so natural is that the people [we hired] were all there because they really cared about the project. They put aside their bigger commercial projects to spend a few days on a set to hold space for this subject matter.

Maria’s an icon in France, but she was also difficult in some ways — she’s a complicated French icon, and that’s what draws me to her. That all these people were there because they were interested in this complicated woman was also very special. 

Also, regarding working in France, the question of translation — working between French and English, the literal art of transation and the art of subtitling — was very compelling to me. Both an actress’s approach to a line and a translator’s approach to a line are beautiful, elegant, deep processes. In my conversations with the French-to-English translator, Daniella Shreir, we could get into an hour-long Zoom debate about the work “the,” or an expression that came up a lot, “une tête bien là,” which could be translated as “a head screwed on” or “a focused mind.” Also, in terms of Maria, she often acted in a second language, English. If you listen to how she speaks French and to her command of voice and affect, as opposed to how she speaks in English, you see the kind of courage she had, and vulnerability [she displayed], to speak so often in our biggest films with American actors. So that question of how performance is affected by language was really compelling to me, and one of the reasons I wanted it to be a bilingual film.

Hunt-Ehrlich: I’m working now on a film about a French writer who wrote in French, and I’m constantly having to think about the politics of translation. I love what you said about translation as being another kind of performance and interpretation but also a kind of vulnerability that you as the director and writer enter into as well. And how that process mirrors the the process of close reading we do as directors. Could you talk about the interview [you chose to recreate], because it’s very sutble and one that one could almost miss —

Subrin: What happens?

Hunt-Ehrlich: Yes. You’re asking a lot of the audience to bring a kind of attention to a moment that probably, when it happened in real time, I’m sure was missed entirely by many.

Subrin: I looked at many, many interviews, “Maria deep intel” [laughs]. Given how much she hated the press, it was hard to find these things. The first time I watched [this particular interview], I thought to myself, “This is not that remarkable.” And then, just like Shulie, I watched it again, and I felt there was something there that was bizarre, something besides the obvious things, which is that she was depressed about the film industry and was pushed to talk about Tango in this uncomfortable way. The more I watched it, the more I saw that there was so much going on underneath the surface. And then working with the actresses, and with Manal in particular, [I saw] the amount of emotions and affects and attitudes and tones [all occurring] in seven minutes. It was staggering. I think Manal probably watched the film several hundred times! She would watch it on a double screen with her performance and Maria’s at the same time, and we flipped the screen for her so she could mirror Maria’s body movements. 

Hunt-Ehrlich: And what’s provocative and interesting about the film playing at Cannes is that you’re bringing the critique right to the very space that was central to Maria Schneider’s experience. The film very much confronts the industry in its subject matter. What expectations to you have about this?

Subrin: One producer said to me that I need to be prepared for questions from Bertolucci fans and the older generations of French cineastes who may have problems with the film. But if there’s anything I’ve thought about a lot, it’s that. I’m not concerned about being critiqued for presenting [the words] of a woman who was so astonishingly prescient about the problems of the film industry. That’s part of the reason the film was so compelling to me: Maria was saying things in 1983 that were not addressed by actresses until decades later. My interest in this project was way before Harvey Weinstein and MeToo, but obviously that made it more relevant, and Maria has really become a poster child for sexual harassment and misconduct in the film industry. So I’m happy that Cannes seems interested in having a dialogue about this, and hopefully the presence of this work and other works in the Quinzaine will represent a turning point in a certain way.

Hunt-Ehrlich: You’ve made this film that is about filmmaking, and what that does to our lives, and that asks us to very much confront the structure itself that we exist and work within. 

Subrin: I appreciate the schism that you bring up, and I’m hoping it’s the right time for this conversation. And I’m honored to be in the presence of other fantastic directors in the Fortnight. And I’m thrilled that Kelly Reichardt is in Competition because I love her work. I guess what I’m thinking about the most is Maria in Cannes in 1975 with The Passenger, which she said throughout her life was the most important film to her. In the many thousands of photographs I’ve looked at of her, there was a level of comfort she had with herself [when she was with] Antonioni. She’d wear a suit with a-shirt, or jeans and sweatshirts, to these events, and she looks like she’s truly inhabiting herself. So that’s part of my imagining of Cannes too, and it makes me smile.

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