Expunge the sex scenes, and one is left with a short film about flat-hunting
part to the adulation of younger directors such as Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle, Bertolucci is a different matter.
Last Tango in Paris is a magnificent piece of cinema, but it looks very different now in light of the revelations about the way Schneider was mistreated and manipulated by her co-star and director – revelations the actor herself, who died in 2012, discussed openly in interviews as far back as 2007 but that only gained widespread traction once they were ratified by Bertolucci in 2013. He admitted that he and Brando had cooked up together the idea of using butter as a prop in the film’s anal-sex scene, surprising the then 19-year-old Schneider while the camera was rolling because he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress”. Schneider said she felt “a little raped” after the scene. “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. Marlon said to me, ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie.’”
But Last Tango in Paris can’t just be a movie now. Unlike Roeg, Bertolucci kept on making exceptional work later in life, but that is in danger of being overshadowed now that audiences in the #MeToo era can point to Bertolucci and say: “Him, too?” What happened on the set of Last Tango in Paris, not to mention the years of Schneider’s claims being ignored, complicates the period of thriving experimentation in which that picture was made. It isn’t the first great work of cinema to be built on suffering, but many viewers today can’t look at it without seeing only the wrongs perpetrated in its name.
Him, too? Bernardo Bertolucci in 1979