Art and Exploitation in ‘Last Tango in Paris’

A 2013 interview with famed film director Bernardo Bertolucci has just resurfaced and is causing widespread outrage. In it, Bertolucci claims that, for the sake of emotional and artistic authenticity in his movie Last Tango in Paris, he and actor Marlon Brando conspired to surprise Brando’s young co-star Maria Schneider in a rape scene which left her so angry and humiliated that she never spoke to Bertolucci again after the project.

In the controversial X-rated erotic drama from 1972, Brando played an American widower engaged in an anonymous sexual relationship with a young Parisian played by Schneider. In the infamous scene in question, Brando, forty-eight at the time, rapes her after using a stick of butter as lubricant.

“The sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting,” Bertulocci said in the interview. “We were having, with Marlon, breakfast on the floor of the flat where I was shooting,” he said. “There was a baguette, there was butter and we looked at each other and, without saying anything, we knew what we wanted.”

It’s hard not to see this as a disturbing collusion on the part of two older, powerful men to take advantage of a young woman under the pretext of eliciting greater emotional truth and spontaneity for the sake of art. Some in Hollywood certainly saw it this way and voiced their disgust.

“Inexcusable. As a director, I can barely fathom this,” tweeted Ava DuVernay. “As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.” Actor Chris Evans tweeted, “Wow. I will never look at this film, Bertolucci or Brando the same way again. This is beyond disgusting. I feel rage.”

The director went on to say in the interview that he felt guilty about it but doesn’t regret it because he felt it was necessary artistically. “I wanted her to react humiliated,” he said. “I think she hated me and also Marlon because we didn’t tell her. To obtain something I think you have to be completely free,” he said. “I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted her to, Maria to feel . . . the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for all of her life.”

Schneider, who died from cancer in 2011, once wrote about the experience, saying, “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].”

“I was so young and relatively inexperienced and I didn’t understand all of the film’s sexual content,” she continued. “I was too young to know better. Marlon later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt.”

Granted, at nineteen she may have been out of her league in the company of Bertolucci and Brando, an incredible talent (who died in 2004), but one is left wondering if the director cast her precisely because she was young, impressionable, vulnerable, and not a seasoned professional, and thus more easily manipulated.

In all fairness, the sex in the film is simulated and the rape was in the script, so Schneider knew what she was in for—to a certain extent. When Bertolucci later clarified that he “had been, in a way, horrible to Maria because I didn’t tell her what was going on,” he was referring not to her rape but only to the use of the butter.

Nonetheless, a sex scene is no time to spring any surprise on an actress, particularly a relatively inexperienced one. Shooting even a consensual sex scene is at best awkward and uncomfortable for the actors; a rape scene can be extremely distressing for an actress, especially if the tenuous wall between art and reality is compromised by a director who violates their collaborative trust.

Despite the auteur theory of cinema, which asserts that a movie is essentially the creative vision of its director, movies are necessarily collaborative, for better or worse. But rather than collaborate with the actress and trust her with the artistic freedom to act violated, Bertolucci wanted Schneider to actually feel violated. “To obtain something I think you have to be completely free,” he had said. In this instance the director felt free to use her to obtain what he wanted for his art, but didn’t give Schneider the choice to freely participate in the mutual creation of that art as an artist herself. While this certainly does not rise to the level of sexual assault to the same degree as those committed by other famed and powerful Hollywood figures such as Roman Polanski or Bill Cosby, the end result is a scene that is more exploitative and voyeuristic than artistic, and to claim that it was in the service of art is no excuse.

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