Bernardo Bertolucci's talent can't hide the monstrous crime committed on the sets of 'Last Tango in Paris'
Bertolucci leaves behind a lasting legacy, but one that's marred by an infamous sex scene from his 1972 erotic drama 'Last Tango in Paris.'
Bernardo Bertolucci's death will no doubt be mourned by Hollywood. After all, the Italian director was a legend in the industry, earning practically every major honor there is, including Oscars, Golden Globes, and even the first-ever Honorary Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. But despite his status as one of the great filmmakers of our time, his legacy will forever be marred by one particular sequence from his 1972 erotic drama 'Last Tango in Paris' featuring an anal rape scene between stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider.
The film portrayed the story of a recently widowed American, Paul (Brando), who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with a young Parisian woman, Jeanne (Schneider). But as time passes, Paul grows increasingly abusive towards Jeanne, both physically and psychologically, and the drama's raw portrayal of sexual violence would make it one of the most contentious movies ever released.
It faced various levels of censorship throughout the world but caught the most backlash in the United States, where it released to enormous public controversy. Local governments in the country tried to ban the movie without success and theatergoers had to often push through mobs of enraged citizens shouting slurs such as "perverts" and "homos" at them to make it to screenings. And while the film did feature other graphic sex scenes — at one point, Paul asks Jeanne to insert her fingers in his anus and then asks her to prove her devotion to him by having sex with a pig — the anal rape scene where Brando uses a stick of butter as a lubricant would follow Bertolucci for the rest of his career.
It may seem like these sexually explicit scenes only kicked up a furor in the past few years, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, but it was just as much a talking point on the film's release as well. However, back then, Schneider played a different tune during interviews in comparison to what she would say in later years. She openly admitted to sleeping with 50 men and 70 women — she was just 19 when the drama came out — and confessed to using drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. She had also praised Bertolucci, suggesting the director was "quite clever" and that "everybody was digging what he was doing and we were all very close."
But in a much more candid interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in 2006, the actress revealed she felt sexually humiliated because of the anal rape scene, in particular, as it had been added to the script at the last moment by Brando and she had not been informed of it until it came down to filming the sequence. "Marlon had the idea," she had said. "When they told me, I had a burst of anger. Woo! I threw everything. And nobody can force someone to do something not in the script. But I didn't know that. I was too young."
She spoke about her ordeal once again in a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail, where she described crying real tears during the scene, and that despite the fact that the anal intercourse was simulated, she felt 'raped by Brando.' "Marlon said to me, 'Maria, don't worry, it's just a movie,' but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears," she divulged. "I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take."
It emerged in 2013, two years after Schneider's death, that humiliation was exactly what Bertolucci was going for, with the director stating during a 2013 masterclass at the Cinemathèque Francaise, a film archive in Paris, that he felt "guilty" about the scene but did not regret it, and that he and Brando had "decided not to say anything to Maria to get a more realistic response."
He insisted that the rape scene was in the script but acknowledged the use of butter as a lubricant was improvised on the day of the shooting and confirmed Schneider's claims she did not know of it until the very last moment. He defended his actions, saying, "I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated."
Bertolucci discussed the scene again during a 2013 interview promoting his film 'Me and You' and seemed to suggest Schneider's age and inexperience were the reasons he couldn't have told her of the scene beforehand. "She was a 19-year-old who, like the actors in Me and You, had never acted before," he said. "Maybe, sometimes in the movie, I didn’t tell her what was going on because I knew her acting would be better."
The outing of Harvey Weinstein as a repeat sexual offender and rapist kickstarted the #MeToo movement that saw several other Hollywood bigwigs exposed for their predatory behavior and brought to the fore a culture of misogyny and gender inequality that was prevalent throughout the industry. But if one had paid close attention to Bertolucci's words several decades earlier, that wouldn't have been so much of a surprise.
In 1973, a year after 'Last Tango in Paris' premiered, the director came out to confirm that he had cut a scene from the movie that involved Brando showing his genitals. He explained, "I had so identified myself with Brando that I cut it out of shame for myself. To show him naked would have been like showing me naked," declaring "Marlon said he felt raped and manipulated by it."
The double standards and the hypocrisy are there for all to see. And what becomes apparent is that there was an awareness of the systemic exploitation of young and upcoming actresses before #MeToo and is quite the damning indictment of the 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy adopted by all those complicit.
The anal rape scene once again hit headlines in 2016, but this time, internationally. In a video uploaded to YouTube by Spanish nonprofit El Mundo de Alycia on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the non-profit called out Bertolucci for abusing Schneider "psychologically and physically." They wrote, "With this video and to mark the day against gender violence, we intend to make known the abuses that many young actresses suffer from some directors and actors, protected by fame." The upload caught the attention of celebrities such as Jessica Chastain, Anna Kendrick, and Chris Evans, as well as critics and the general audience who went so far as to suggest burning copies of the movie.
While Schneider would go on to feature in over 50 films after 'Last Tango in Paris,' she could never manage to shake off the 'sex symbol' status she earned for starring in the erotic drama. It had scarred her. She never went nude for another film again and would fall into a spiral of drug abuse that eventually led her to attempt suicide. "I got into drugs - pot and then cocaine, LSD, and heroin - it was like an escape from reality. It was the Seventies and at that time, it was all going on," she told the Daily Mail. "I didn't enjoy being famous at all and drugs were my escape. I took pills to try and commit suicide but I survived because God decided it wasn't the time for me to go."
The actress did mend her relationship with Brando and the pair remained friends until the latter's death in 2004, but the same can't be said of her feelings for Bertolucci. "I think Bertolucci is over-rated and he never really made anything after Last Tango that had the same impact," she had said. "He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me," adding she had "not really forgiven him" for the way he treated her.
Bertolucci's death means that all three of the primary players (one of them unwilling) in the rape scene are now dead. Now, that brings up the question of how one should approach the director's career and achievements. In an age where his admissions on springing the scene on Schneider are, quite frankly, unacceptable, does one view him in a vacuum and judge him for his undoubted artistic flair, or does one take into consideration the fact that he and Brando conspired to manipulate a teenager who knew no better into sexually humiliating herself?
His numerous retellings of the ordeal saw him openly admit to what would today be construed as sexual misconduct, and in none of those retellings did he express the slightest of remorse. No one in their right mind would question his talent, but his morality? That will forever be up for debate.