Last Tango in Paris remains a big deal, both as a movie and as the complicated legacy of Bernardo Bertolucci
It is up to each individual to decide whether they can live with the art created by a man such as Bernardo Bertolucci or not.
It’s a little hard, in this been-there-seen-that era, to grasp what a big deal Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was, upon its release in 1972. Indeed, one of my favourite appraisals of the film (though, clearly, not one that I agree with) is by a user named Dave J on Rotten Tomatoes: “To some it’s one of those great films about a husband [played by Marlon Brando] making attempts to get over his wife’s suicide by continually making out with a French escort played by Maria Schneider in which film critics Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars out of 4 and Leonard Maltin giving it 3 and a half out of 4, but if you’re watching it for pure enjoyment, I don’t find anything entertaining to see an wrinkled up overweight man (I don’t care whether or not he’s the greatest actor on earth) making out with a mediocre French actress with hairy armpits.”
But back then, a court in Bologna banned the film on the grounds of “obscene content offensive to public decency...presented with obsessive self-indulgence, catering to the lowest instincts of the libido, dominated by the idea of stirring unchecked appetites for sexual pleasure, permeated by scurrilous language...accompanied off screen by sounds, sighs and shrieks of climax pleasure.” On the liberal side of things, there was Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review: “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made... [I think those of us who had speculated about erotic movies] had expected artistic blue movies, talented directors taking over from the Schlockmeisters and making sophisticated voyeuristic fantasies that would be gorgeous fun – a real turn-on. What nobody had talked about was a sex film that would churn up everybody’s emotions.”
My own feelings about the controversial aspects of Last Tango (I saw it long after its release) were along the lines of what François Truffaut wrote in his book, The Films in my Life: “Unfortunately I cannot cite an erotic film that is the equivalent of Henry Miller’s writing (the best films, from Bergman to Bertolucci, have been pessimistic), but after all, freedom for the cinema is still quite new. Also, we must consider that the starkness of images poses far more difficult problems than those posed by the written word.” The closest I have come to the rapture of sex on page making it to the big screen is in Stanley Kubrick’s take on Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov begins his novel thusly: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta.” Kubrick opens his film with the scene of a man painstakingly painting a girl’s toenails. The man’s obsessiveness captures the obsession in Nabokov’s lines.
But what about actual (as opposed to suggested) sex? What Bertolucci showed in Last Tango is tame today, but the film remains a stunning example of how sex can define a relationship. And about how the depiction of sex can come to define a film. For today, most of the conversation around Last Tango isn’t about the film so much as the circumstances of the shooting of the scene where the Brando character violates the Schneider character anally, with the use of butter. In July 2007, thirty-five years after Last Tango’s release, Maria Schneider (who was 19 when she shot the film) revealed in a Daily Mail interview that Bertolucci was “fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me.” She added that Brando himself – at the age of 48, then, with some three decades of stage and screen acting behind him – felt manipulated.
What happened on that set was wrong. There’s no two ways about it. You cannot shoot a scene that’s not in the original script, unless everyone participating in the scene has been informed and is on board. Bertolucci later said (see interview below) that Marlon and he got the idea during breakfast. There was a baguette, and there was butter. And... voila! Schneider said, “They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry... 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. I felt humiliated...”
This humiliation was what Bertolucci was after. Later, he said he regretted what he did, but did not feel guilt over it. “You know, to make movies is sometimes to obtain something. I think that you have to be completely free. I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and the humiliation.” It reminded me of reports in Tamil magazines about how the director Bharathiraja was known to slap his heroines before scenes where they were supposed to cry or react a certain way. It’s terrible. At least, with other complicated artists like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski (in the sense that the things they have done, or are accused of having done, complicates some people’s viewing of their films), the (mis)deed itself is separate from the film. In Last Tango, the scene is right up there, for us to see.
I have no qualms or doubts about Bertolucci the filmmaker, as I have no problem separating the art and the artist. I believe – and you do not have to agree – that the art comes from a pure place, and the artist is but a flawed human vessel. Whether you believe this “pure place” is God, the Muse, or the circuitry of neurons and chemical connections one is born with, it is its own thing. It is up to each individual to decide whether they can live with the art created by a man such as Bertolucci or not. For the man himself appears to have been just that. A man. A hopelessly flawed man. Someone who’d be thrown in jail today for what he did to Schneider. That he has left us grappling with all this is this undeniably great filmmaker’s legacy.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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