Bernardo Bertolucci was one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, a protean talent whose impact on the cinema of the 1970s was incalculable.
Bernardo Bertolucci was a director who orchestrated the onscreen assault of an actress in ways that traumatized her for the rest of her life.
It is up to each of us to discover an algorithm that allows us to hold both facts in our heads and hearts simultaneously.
This calculus has become one of the necessary reckonings of the #MeToo tsunami that has been rolling forward since The New York Times and Ronan Farrow published the first reports on Harvey Weinstein a little over a year ago. (I know, it already seems like centuries.) The more stories we hear, the more the greater public understands such stories have always been there, untold or unbelieved or given a pass because “it was the era.”
The era in this case was the early 1970s. Bertolucci, the bad boy of Italian cinema who died Monday at 77, was making a movie with Marlon Brando and French actress Maria Schneider about a desperate, no-names-attached sexual affair between an aging widower and a woman three decades his junior. “Last Tango in Paris” is about sex, certainly, but it’s also about politics and movies and grief and male fears of impotence, both physical and existential. Mostly, it’s about Marlon Brando.
The film’s frankness about nudity and male-female power dynamics made it seem shocking, revolutionary; I remember my mother hiding the issue of Time magazine with the nude photos of Brando and Schneider from my very curious 14-year-old eyes. And, as came out in a 2013 Bertolucci interview that was more widely reported on in late 2016, the filming of those sex scenes was only partly — and even then, very arguably — consensual.
Schneider was 19 at the time. Brando was 48 and a legend on the rebound: His comeback in “The Godfather” hit theaters during the filming of “Last Tango.” Bertolucci was coming off “The Conformist” (1970) — possibly his greatest work and the film that, if any, you should watch this week in commemoration — and was at the apex of his auteurist cachet. You did not say no to these men, and so Schneider very grudgingly assented to a scene in which Brando’s character, Paul, roughly forces her character, Jeanne, to have anal sex.
The two men came up with the idea of using a stick of butter for lubrication. They didn’t tell Schneider. In the 2013 interview, the director claimed he wanted to film her reaction “as a girl, not an actress.” “I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage,” Bertolucci said. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation.”
Mission accomplished, I suppose. “Even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears,” Schneider recalled in a 2007 interview. “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.”
A little raped — that’s enough, don’t you think? Schneider remained on good terms with Brando until his death in 2004 but never made up with Bertolucci. After the filming of “Last Tango,” she struggled with depression and drug addiction and attempted suicide several times. Her costar remained an icon; people approached Schneider on planes and asked about the butter. She died of breast cancer in 2011, at 58, and regretted her experiences on “Last Tango” to the end.
Now Bertolucci is gone, and I opened this assessment of his legacy with its darkest moment (I hope) because to gloss over the crime — and it was a crime — is to ignore the damage people can do in the name of art, or what they believe is art.
I revisited “Last Tango” a few years ago; time has not been kind, as is often the case with works that were passionately of their time. Brando remains mesmerizing, a great ruin; Schneider seems brave but somewhat (and understandably) out of her depth. Much of the film’s style has dated badly. It can make one a little sick to think that a person, a young woman giving her trust to a man behind a movie camera, was used so horribly for this.
But then you watch “The Conformist” — about a young man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in 1930s Italy who joins the Fascists because he’s desperate to belong somewhere, anywhere — and you gasp at a film whose intuitive connections between religion, sex, and brute power feel more relevant today than ever. Or you go back to early Bertolucci, like “Before the Revolution” (1964), with its cruelly on-target portrayal of bourgeois young leftists, or to a later masterpiece like the 1987 best picture Oscar winner, “The Last Emperor,” and you wrestle with how and if art can ever be free from the taint of the people who make it. Whether people’s best work can be separated from their worst moments, and whether the only honest assessment is one that holds both the creations and the damage in exact balance.
You can also avoid the matter entirely and save your filmic mourning for a director such as Britain’s Nicolas Roeg, who died Nov. 23 at the age of 90. He leaves behind a cinematic legacy that is similarly groundbreaking and probably more influential on filmmaking techniques, styles, and themes of today. You could do worse than hunker down for a repeat viewing of “Performance” (1970), “Walkabout” (1971), the terrifying “Don’t Look Now” (1973), or “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976).
Was Roeg a complete saint, either in private life or on the set? I have no idea, but probably as much as we all are, which is to say no. You could argue that all directors are guilty of abuse to one degree or another, although very few graduate to assault.
For what it’s worth, though, “Don’t Look Now” features a sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie that was just as controversial in its day as anything in “Last Tango in Paris,” and everyone seemed copacetic with how it played out. In a 2015 documentary about Roeg, Christie went on record about the scene, saying the director “managed to get the extraordinary thing that happens when you are making love” and describing her memories of filming the sequence as “just flesh squirming and rolling and touching, and God I thought it was absolutely lovely.”
That’s what a collaborative medium like filmmaking can sound like when all involved are invited to play on an equal and informed footing. Anything else may look like art and be mistaken for art, but it’s a power trip disguised as the creative act. Bernardo Bertolucci deserves to be remembered for that as well.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.