The scene in Last Tango in Paris where Marlon Brando anally rapes Maria Schneider was controversial at the time of the release and the effect hasn’t exactly softened over the years. In 2016, when both actors were dead, there was talk of Schneider actually being raped on set, prompting director Bernardo Bertolucci to release a statement denying that accusation. Still, what we have known for many years is bad enough. This was not a safe set; Bertolucci and Brando reportedly decided behind Schneider’s back that Brando’s character would use butter as a lubricant in the scene. By not telling her they were hoping to get a more realistic reaction.
Schneider was furious though, feeling sexually humiliated, even ”a little raped”. The experience had devastatingly negative consequences in her life; she never forgave Bertolucci, even if she and Brando remained friends. The movie became a classic, but it’s never been an easy watch.
Meeting a young woman in an apartment
The story begins with Paul (Brando), a 45-year-old American hotel owner walking the streets of Paris, feeling distraught. When he takes a look at an apartment he’s thinking of renting there’s another person there, a young woman called Jeanne (Schneider). She finds him curious and they end up having sex on the floor. It’s a shocking turn of events for them both. Paul rents the apartment and they keep seeing each other, but Paul insists they shouldn’t know anything about each other. They remain completely anonymous to one another. At the same time, their lives continue outside the apartment. We learn that Paul’s wife recently committed suicide and that he’s dealing with the grief; Jeanne has a filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who’s adventurous like her, but perhaps not to the same extent…
Turning a fantasy into a movie
I suppose that we learned more about Bertolucci than we asked for, as the director reportedly turned a fantasy of his, a desire to have sex with a woman without knowing her identity, into this movie. It is in every way a naked film, beginning with paintings by Francis Bacon showing body parts that look like raw meat. The style and colors helped Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro find the right winter look for their Parisian tale, as seen in the cold streets of the city and in the light shining into the squalid apartment where Paul and Jeanne have their sordid meetings.
That notorious rape scene isn’t the only off-putting ingredient in a film that feels awfully (yet fascinatingly) gloomy and mournful. Neither of the two characters come across as people who know how to control themselves or set necessary boundaries; Paul behaves as if he has nothing to lose, with little regard for anyone (including himself) and Jeanne is more of a young searcher, unsure of what she wants but irresistibly drawn toward danger and passion. We share some of their darkest moments together, culminating in a last, drunken tango in a bar that leads to a chase and a final, fateful encounter in Jeanne’s apartment.
Superior performances by the two leads and Gato Barbieri’s jazzy music score helped sell a movie that became a scandalous sensation. In countries run by military dictatorships, the film was banned; in Italy, Bertolucci was punished for ”obscenity”. I hope he was proud of those achievements, because they were decisions made by men of inferior moral standing.
Last Tango in Paris 1972-France-Italy. 129 min. Color. Produced by Alberto Grimaldi. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli. Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro. Music: Gato Barbieri. Cast: Marlon Brando (Paul), Maria Schneider (Jeanne), Jean-Pierre Léaud (Thomas), Darling Legitimus, Catherine Sola, Mauro Marchetti.
Trivia: Italian title: Ultimo tango a Parigi. French title: Le dernier tango à Paris. Agnès Varda worked on the French dialogue; Jean-Louis Trintignant contributed to the script.
Last word: “Some mornings on set [Bertolucci] would be very nice and say hello and on other days, he wouldn’t say anything at all. 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. People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn’t me. I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol – I wanted to be recognised as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.” (Schneider, Daily Mail)