By Richard Brody – The New Yorker
For a while, “Last Tango in Paris,” starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, won Bernardo Bertolucci acclaim. In the light of history, it has rightfully brought him infamy.
An actress berates a director across the tracks at a quiet Paris Métro station, telling him that she’s going to quit the film that they’re working on. The movie is an unusual one; they are acting in it, under their own names, and they are being followed and filmed as they go about their daily lives. The director has filmed his real-life romantic reunion with the actress at a train station; he and his crew have joined her at her family home in the French countryside, where he works out an elaborate plan for getting her to reminisce on-camera, to recall and seemingly relive her childhood onscreen. Now, in the Métro, she tells him that he’s wasting her time, she tells him that he’s taking advantage of her, she tells him that he’s forcing her to do things that he wants her to do. While she yells at him, he holds his fingers up in a rectangle in front of his eyes and imagines that he’s filming her; as a train roars into the station, she cries out, “I’m tired of being raped!”
The woman in that scene is Jeanne, played by Maria Schneider, and the film in which it appears is “Last Tango in Paris,” the 1972 movie, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, that propelled him, at the age of thirty-one, into the history of cinema. The director, who died this week, at the age of seventy-seven, was previously acclaimed as a virtuoso; then, with the release of “Last Tango,” he was hailed as an innovator, a revolutionary artist—in a famous review in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael compared the film’s importance to that of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which sparked a riot at its première, in 1913. Yet “Last Tango” is famous not for its sardonic, satirical plotline about the making of an exaggerated docu-fiction, but for what Jeanne does when she becomes involved in a sexual liaison with a forty-five-year-old man named Paul, played by Marlon Brando.
Jeanne, who’s twenty, first encounters Paul while apartment-hunting, when she enters a large and dilapidated old unit that’s for rent in the posh Paris neighborhood of Passy and finds him already there, another prospective tenant. Paul lurks there mysteriously, even menacingly; he flirts with her, lifts her with a hand between her legs, kisses her; she returns the kiss and the embrace as he tears off her panties; they have intercourse, initiating a sexual relationship that they continue in this apartment and there alone. He doesn’t know her name, refuses to let her say it, refuses to say his own, makes a scene of keeping their names and their lives out of the relationship. His idea is that two anonymous people will meet in the apartment for sex, will explore their bodies in isolation from their social identities, and keep that relationship separate and sealed-off from the other parts of their lives.
The details of the relationship, which Bertolucci imagines only thinly, involve playful domesticities—the proper placement of an armchair, the making of animal sounds, his whirling her about in the air like a child. It also involves sex: bawdy sex talk, explicit (yet simulated) sex, and the full-frontal nudity of Schneider (though not of Brando). Jeanne and Paul roll on the floor and have sex; Jeanne masturbates in front of Paul; Paul tells Jeanne to insert two fingers into his anus. (He wants her to “go right up into the ass of death . . . and find the womb of fear.”) And Paul rapes Jeanne, pushing her onto the floor, face-down, pulling her pants down, and, using butter to lubricate her anus, penetrating her as she shouts “No!” three times and cries while he orders her to repeat some impious phrases of anti-bourgeois sentiment.
At the time of the film’s release and first run, from late 1972 through 1973, leading critics did not describe this scene as one of rape. Neither Kael, nor Vincent Canby, in two separate articles in the Times, nor Norman Mailer, in The New York Review of Books, uses that word to describe the scene. “Last Tango” was most famous then for its abundance of sex scenes—and for the ostensible erotic thrill of their elements of aggression and pain. Today, it is infamous not only because of how the rape scene seemingly passes off a reprehensible, violent action as a form of uninhibited and liberating sexuality but because it is now known that the filming of that scene involved actual, real-life abuse. In 2007, Schneider (who died in 2011, at the age of fifty-eight) discussed that scene in detail with a journalist, saying that it wasn’t in the script, that it was Brando’s idea, and that it was imposed upon her at the last minute on the set: “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 and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”
What Schneider describes—the abusive transformation of intentional dramatic performance into a real-life experience by improvisation and surprise—is akin to what the character Jeanne reproaches her boyfriend, the director Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), for doing. The complicity of Brando and Bertolucci in this shift, from acting to provocation, is suggested throughout the film by Brando’s own performance, which is itself a work of improvisational virtuosity. It’s not clear whether Bertolucci sprang surprises on him, but Brando, throughout the film, seems to have sprung surprises on Bertolucci, perhaps even on himself. Brando lends the character of Paul large swaths of dialogue that copiously borrow details from Brando’s own life; he fills the movie with his own flamboyant verbal invention and combustible attitude. Paul, whose wife has just committed suicide, presents himself as a lifelong international adventurer of great flair and little luck. In effect, Paul is Brando minus the acting, the fame, and the money—the private Brando stripped of public power.
The character of Jeanne, the sheltered daughter of an Algerian War colonel, isn’t drawn from Schneider’s own life, but she, much like Brando—and like Jeanne, in Tom’s film—improvises throughout the film. Like Brando, she has some extraordinary scenes of dramatic and comedic performance—such as a moment of earnest effervescence, in which Schneider discusses with Tom the cultural politics of their impending marriage. But these scenes are merely a backdrop for the ones that made the film historic. The movie’s improvisational looseness is inseparable from its depiction of sex; the long takes with which Bertolucci films the sex scenes suggests the extreme extent to which he was interested in making them the actors’ creations, making them coalesce with the actors’ own personalities, making them reflect the actors’ own feelings about sex—and, in Schneider’s case, about sexual abuse.
“I was too young to know better,” Schneider said, in the 2007 interview. “Marlon later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt. People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn’t me.” The difference between Schneider and Brando was that Brando had a three-decade career, a vast body of work, a well-established personality that preceded him into “Last Tango”; as strongly as he may have allowed the character of Paul to be identified with him, there was still much else with which Brando would be identified, as well. Schneider, who had never been in a major movie before, had no prior public persona, and so the public came to identify her with the role.
This, too, was no accident on Bertolucci’s part. In a 2013 television interview, he said, “It was in the script that he had to rape her in a way,” admitting that the specifics of the scene were added on the set. He continued, “But, I’ve been, in a way, horrible to Maria, because I didn’t tell her what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” Furthermore, he said, “I feel guilty but I do not regret. You know, to make movies is sometime 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.” The director didn’t want a performance, he wanted the character of Jeanne to be usurped by, replaced by, the reality of Maria Schneider.
The scene of Jeanne reproaching Tom at the train station suggests that Bertolucci was weirdly unaware of the similarities between Tom’s methods and his own—and between the pain endured by Jeanne in making Tom’s film and the pain endured by Schneider in making “Last Tango.” He seems to draw a distinction between, on the one hand, Tom’s filming of Jeanne’s ostensibly unmediated self-portrayal, and, on the other, his own filming of his actors’ improvised realizations of fictional characters in a fictional story of his devising. The former, he implies, is an encroachment, even an abuse; the latter is collaborative creation. Then, in his fictional scene of a fictional assault that depended upon the perpetration of a real one, Bertolucci proved himself wrong.
Bertolucci made “Last Tango in Paris” at a moment of extraordinary new freedoms of public expression and private behavior, and he decided to make a movie that would reflect the complexities of the culture’s new sexual freedoms. Yet, in the process, he also unwittingly showed that the depiction of sex in movies is one of the most emotionally fraught and morally perilous of directorial decisions. Bertolucci had the impulse to make a movie that would be more dramatically daring and frank, on the subject of sex, than any movie had ever been; in pursuing this audacious artistic ambition, and while remaining safely behind the camera, he took more from his actors than any director should ever expect or even want them to give. For a while, the film won him acclaim; in the light of history, it has rightfully brought him infamy. I’m reminded of the ending of a film-noir classic, “Nightmare Alley,” from 1947, which is also the tale of a harrowing fall from grace; speaking of the fallen protagonist, one acquaintance asks, “How can a guy get so low?” Another one responds, “He reached too high.”
- Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog for newyorker.com. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”