Last Tango in Paris is a 1972 film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Schneider plays a young Parisian woman having an anonymous sexual relationship with widowed American played by Brando. The frank and graphic nature of the film led to controversy and censorship worldwide.
Regarding the film’s most famous sex scene Maria Schneider said in a 2007 interview “That scene wasn’t in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea. They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry. I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that. 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. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
This comment went largely unnoticed until 2016 when an interview with Bertolucci surfaced where he corroborates and defends these actions saying he did not tell Schneider “what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.”
These revelations have re-contextualized the film for many of us moving it from a film about sexuality, manipulation, and rape to a film of sexuality, manipulation, and rape. For me, watching it in its new context was very difficult. Part of the power of the film originally was sexual progressiveness, openness and equality, the idea that men and women should not be ashamed of sexuality. The new context, unfortunately, shows that the film is a depiction of sexual inequality, of coercion and indifference to the idea that Schneider was an actress deserving of their respect. Bertolucci wanted the reaction of a girl and, rather than ask an actress to give him that reaction he chose to sabotage and brutalize a young actress.
The same disrespect was not shown to Brando when, after hours of attempting to shoot a full-frontal scene in cold conditions, Bertolucci acquiesced and cut the scene rather than bruise Brando’s ego.
The question of whether Last Tango in Paris can still be seen as art is tied up in the same conversation as any other collaborative work where there were deplorable working conditions or abuses of power. Re-contextualizing the movie helps us think more deeply about subjects that matter to us in 2017 rather than 1972. If the movie can help bring to light issues of gender equality and violence against women 45 years after it was made then, admittedly, it still retains a certain power and position in the world of film.