Perhaps it says a lot about the current state of cinema that a movie responsible for hysteria at the time of its release has resurfaced as a source of outrage forty-five years later, presumably in the absence of any contemporary equivalent. The renewed hysteria in 2016 also serves as a shrewd comment on the swinging moral barometer since ‘Last Tango in Paris’ was originally released in 1972. First time round, it was largely the serial censors of the right that singled out Bertolucci’s art-house masterpiece as a reprehensible artefact of the Permissive Society, the Whitehouse/Longford/Muggeridge Festival of Light brigade that had already got its C of E knickers in a twist over ‘Oh! Calcutta’ and ‘Oz’; today, it is the so-called ‘liberal’ left and its legion of affiliated victims, survivors and martyrs that is in an uproar. It does make me wonder how many of them have actually seen the film.
The fuss began when someone stumbled upon an interview with renowned old-school European Auteur Bernardo Bertolucci, in which he bigged-up the legend of his own movie by claiming actress Maria Schneider, whose ‘Last Tango’ character engages in a loveless affair with Brando’s grieving widower as he expresses his complex self-loathing, had no idea the film’s most infamous scene was going to happen. In it, Brando seemingly buggers her using a certain dairy product as a lubricant. Some would argue a scene in which she shoves her fingers up his arse at his request was a tad more contentious, though that didn’t follow Brando around as the butter scene dogged Schneider throughout the rest of a career that hardly set the silver screen alight. And, lest we forget, if there’s a victim, it has to be a woman.
‘Last Tango’ was one of the final gems to emerge from European cinema’s post-war golden age, an era whose films often specialised in pseudo-documentary realism at a time when the first three or four hours on the day’s shoot of a Hollywood movie were devoted to setting up the lights so that all the old actresses looked beautiful. Italian and then French cinema stripped away the soft-focus facade in the same way that the raw simplicity of Punk erased Prog’s elaborate embellishments. It produced a generation of directors whose names remain revered – Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, Pasolini, Bunuel, Truffaut and Godard, to name just a few – and their movies still regularly fill-up critics’ lists of the greatest works of art ever committed to celluloid.
The influence of European cinema also helped revitalise Hollywood at the end of the 60s when a new wave of cinematic scholars such as Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola gate-crashed the mainstream when television had stolen American cinema’s thunder. Few of the great movies to emerge from this fruitful pre-‘Star Wars’ period of adult creativity – ‘The Godfather’, ‘Network’, ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘The Parallax View’, ‘Taxi Driver’ – have been surpassed since, and the post-Hayes Code era when Hollywood grew-up (before dumbing down) owed its existence to the cinema of Italy, France and Spain.
By casting Marlon Brando in ‘Last Tango’, Bertolucci was consciously playing the conductor of a marriage ceremony between European cinema and an American actor whose obstinate rejection of the star system had seen his cache plummet in the 60s; Brando had only just completed the film that would turn out to revive his career, ‘The Godfather’, when he received the call, so it was still a gamble on the director’s part to hire him. In the end, it was a perfect marriage; Brando arguably gave his greatest ever performance in the scene in which he confronts his wife’s body and unleashes all the rage he kept suppressed whilst she was alive.
But it wasn’t that scene that upset the Puritans when the film hit American and British screens at the beginning of 1973. What the US and UK referred to as ‘explicit sex scenes’ raised few eyebrows on the continent. Wily Bertolucci knew what would happen, of course, and he milked the outrage for all it was worth, as he has continued to do in the decades since. The idea that Maria Schneider had no idea that the ‘butter scene’ was coming or that Brando actually raped her on camera is the kind of PR hyperbole that bestowed notoriety in the 70s, but times have changed and are considerably more conservative – especially in that corner of California that has utterly lost the ability to make a movie that appeals to anyone over the mental age of twelve.
Apparently there’s an actor called Chris Evans (yes, I thought the same when I heard that name) whose CV includes the Shakespearean challenge of portraying Captain America in the latest popcorn Marvel franchise. When he caught sight of the bandwagon rolling into town he hitched a ride and proclaimed ‘I feel rage’ on Twitter, adding ‘I will never look at this film, Bertolucci and Brando in the same way again…this is beyond disgusting…they should be in jail.’
Not to be outdone, an actress we’ve all heard of called Jessica Chastain weighed in with her own public service announcement: ‘To all the people that love this film – you’re watching a 19-year-old being raped by a 48-year-old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick.’ Another household name, Evan Rachel Wood, whose recent career move consisted of revealing she’d been raped twice, declared ‘This is heartbreaking and outrageous. The two of them are very sick individuals to think that was OK.’
Rape remains defined as penetration; as far as we know, Brando didn’t penetrate Schneider; they were acting; they were actors. It’s pretend. Maybe the current crop of ‘stars’ are so accustomed to CGI and every film belonging in fantasy-land that they can’t tell the difference between documentary and movies rooted in documentary realism. Equally, the confessional atmosphere of American showbiz and its embrace of victimhood – which reached its apex of nausea at last year’s Oscars – means a non-story such as this will inevitably be exploited by people too stupid and too wrapped-up in their own politically-correct moral crusading to appreciate a film such as ‘Last Tango in Paris’. They don’t deserve it.
© The Editor