Two film greats: Director of the nine-Oscar ‘The Last Emperor’, who scandalised with ‘Last Tango in Paris’, and the director who struggled for commercial success but was seen to greatest effect in ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘Performance’ and ‘Walkabout’
BERNARDO Bertolucci, the Italian filmmaker, who died last Monday aged 77, was best known for two films so different in character and conception that it was difficult to believe they emerged from the same director.
The Last Emperor (1987) was a sweeping and sumptuously filmed account of the life of Pu Yi, the Chinese child-king, last of the Qing Dynasty, who was deposed and treated as a war criminal by the communists, ending up an ordinary citizen in Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic.
Shot in the visual splendour of Beijing’s Forbidden City, which had never before been opened up for use in a Western film, it was made with the approval of the Chinese authorities, who provided 19,000 extras from the People’s Liberation Army to help in its production.
It won Bertolucci all nine Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Film and Best Director.
Fifteen years earlier, the director had caused a scandal — and made his name — with Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as a middle-aged man and younger woman who engage in a brutal sexual relationship in a bare Paris apartment. In Italy, the film was declared by a court to be “obscene, indecent and catering to the lowest instincts of the libido” and, initially, banned; Bertolucci had his civil rights revoked for five years and earned a four-month suspended prison sentence.
Sourly claustrophobic where The Last Emperor was epic and grandiose, Last Tango in Paris was inspired by a sexual fantasy of Bertolucci’s that involved “seeing a beautiful nameless woman on the street and having sex with her without ever knowing who she was”. It caused outrage for a rape scene in which a growling, sweating, naked Marlon Brando “sodomises” Maria Schneider using a pack of butter as a lubricant.
The butter detail had not been in the original script; according to Bertolucci the idea occurred to him when he and Brando, 48, were having breakfast “and there was a baguette and there was butter, and we looked at each other and without saying anything, we knew what we wanted”.
They decided not to warn Maria Schneider, a 19-yearold unknown when she made the film, until the two actors were ready to shoot the scene, because, as Bertolucci recalled later, “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated”.
In an interview in 2007, the actress claimed that she had not known about the proposed rape scene at all (let alone the proposed misuse of a dairy product), until just before filming: “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.”
Indeed the scene was so harrowing to watch that some believed the rape had really taken place.
After Last Tango in Paris Maria Schneider battled with drugs and mental health and when she died of cancer aged 58 in 2011 her obituaries blamed at least some of her problems on Bertolucci’s treatment of her.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph Magazine in 2013, however, John Preston, who interviewed her shortly before she died, wrote that while she may have had a “legitimate beef ”, he had the feeling that “she’d lit on Last Tango in Paris as the source of all her woes because it enabled her to shift the blame for the appalling mess she’d made of her life on to someone else”.
Bertolucci was described by one profile writer as “an enchanting narcissist, a limousine Marxist, an adorer of Freud and Buddha, a lover of fabulous clothing, rakish hats, cashmere”. Off the set, he had a rather old-fashioned courteous air, but he always admitted that he was apt to get carried away when directing, sometimes to the point of ruthlessness.
“Maria accused me of having robbed her of her youth,” he said after her death, “and only today am I wondering whether there wasn’t some truth to that.” He wished he had been able to apologise to her at least once.
Bernardo Bertolucci was born on March 16, 1941 in the northern Italian city of Parma. His father, Attilio Bertolucci, was a poet, art historian and film critic.
When Bernardo was 13 the family moved to Rome where one day he answered the doorbell. “A very sinister looking man was standing there in a black hat. He asked for Professor Bertolucci. I went and woke up my father who was having a nap and told him there was a man outside who looked like a thief.” The man, it transpired, was the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Bertolucci ended up dropping out of university and going to work for Pasolini as an assistant director on Accattone (1961). A year later, in 1962, he made his first film The Grim Reaper, about the murder of a prostitute, followed by Before the Revolution (1964) — avant-garde works influenced by the French New Wave.
There followed two 1970 films delving into Italy’s dalliance with fascism: The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist, the latter — starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda in a freewheeling adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel about an Italian fascist in the Thirties who is told to kill his former teacher — was a visually stunning work which many critics felt was Bertolucci’s masterpiece.
Reviewing it in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael hailed it as “a sumptuous, emotionally charged experience”. “His films just seem to flow,” she wrote, “as if the life he photographs had not been set up for the camera but were all there and he were moving in and out of it at will.”
Bertolucci wanted to cast Trintignant and Dominique Sanda in Brando and Schneider’s roles in Last Tango in Paris, but Trintignant declined and Dominique Sanda was pregnant. The film provoked extreme reactions all round — cinemagoers in Italy and Spain, where it was banned, had to travel to France, where it earned rave reviews, to see it. But it made Bertolucci the most famous director in the world.
Thinking he could do almost anything he wanted, he embarked on 1900 (1976), a huge, all-star five-hour period epic about struggling farmers in Emilia-Romagna, featuring Gerard Depardieu as its Marxist hero. The film received mixed reviews from critics in America, where the distributors forced Bertolucci to make cuts and gave it a limited release.
His roller-coaster between critical success and failure continued with such works as La Luna (1979), an overheated tale of incest, which even he labelled “atrocious”; The Last Emperor; The Sheltering Sky (1990), an adaptation of the Paul Bowles novel described by one critic as “barely watchable”; and Little Buddha (1993), which, though beautifully filmed, earned ridicule for Bertolucci’s choice of Keanu Reeves to play Siddhartha, the future Buddha.
But he remained a key figure of serious cinema, admired for his boldness of style. His last major film, Me and You (2012), based on a novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, was about a troubled teenage boy who bunks off a school skiing trip and spends a week living in the basement of his mother’s apartment building, emerging a lot happier.
Bertolucci once said that his films were a by-product of his time on the psychiatrist’s couch. The Telegraph’s John Preston felt Me and You was a “metaphor” about the director’s own life.
Bernardo Bertolucci was married to Clare Peploe, the British screenwriter, producer and director, who survives him. They had no children.
CONTROVERSIAL: Bernardo Bertolucci, left, discusses a scene with leading actors Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider during the shooting of ‘Last Tango in Paris’ in 1973. Photo: AP