WE MIGHT AS well get it out of the way—that notorious episode in Bernardo Bertolucci’s filmography when Marlon Brando’s character in Last Tango in Paris reaches for a stick of butter as he rapes Maria Schneider’s character from behind.
It is a scene that has moved out of the confines of the film to acquire a life of its own. It has been spoken of, discussed and joked about so much that one hears of it long before encountering the film itself. In the film, Brando’s Paul, grieving after his wife’s suicide, meets a young woman, Jeanne (played by Schneider), when they are looking for an apartment to rent. They begin a sexual relationship, with Paul setting its template: they are never to share personal details with each other, not even their names. But in this particular scene, Paul is forceful and Jeanne clearly unwilling.
When the film released, New Yorker’s legendary film critic Pauline Kael declared that the film had ‘altered the face of an art form’. Time magazine said, ‘Any moviegoers who are not shocked, titillated, disgusted, fascinated, delighted or angered by this early scene… should be patient. There is more to come. Much more.’
But in recent times, the rape scene has come under renewed scrutiny. This was after Schneider told an interviewer that the scene was not part of the script. Brando, according to Schneider, told her, “Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie.” But when the scene was being shot, she said, “even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped…” Bertolucci would later go on to say that the scene was in the script, but the detail of using butter was improvised. Bertolucci and Brando had apparently decided not to tell Schneider because Bertolucci wanted “her reaction as a girl, not as an actress”.
What Bertolucci and Brando did was contemptible. Two powerful men had connived with one another in the humiliation of a 19-year-old. The filmmaker might have been chasing realism. But what he had gotten was not a performance. He had gotten on camera a real response to a humiliation he and Brando had heaped upon her.
It is a strange thought to consider, but Bertolucci’s most famous film got him in trouble twice for two different reasons. The first time, at the time of its release, from the cultural right, for its frank depiction of sex. And the second, decades later—during a new cultural awakening for fair conduct towards women—for the treatment of its female lead.
The three people involved in that scene are now dead. Brando is gone. Schneider died in 2011. And now its celebrated director, Bertolucci, is dead too. He passed on a few days ago at the age of 77. This revelation— of his treatment meted out to Schneider— dogged him in his final years and now it is likely to cast a long shadow whenever his work is discussed.
It is a pity because Bertolucci was one of the last great filmmakers of his era. He made memorable movies across decades. He was like a novelist working in another medium, a filmmaker of ideas. His characters, the visual style of his films, all were put to service to convey an idea or a larger thought. Even his film’s sex scenes, explicit as they were, were not for titillation. In Last Tango, Brando’s Paul may be the sexual aggressor, the one who sets the boundaries of their relationship, putting forth a very masculine idea of dominance, but the film shows us that he is in fact the weaker one.
Bertolucci should have apologised to Schneider or retreated and kept mum. But he was probably too much of an alpha-male. Earlier this year, after Kevin Spacey had been dropped from a film on allegations of sexual assault, Bertolucci was up and about declaring that he “immediately wanted to make a film with Spacey”.