In 2007, actress Maria Schneider gave an interview with Lina Das of the Daily Mail in which she talked about her work in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris on the occasion of the film’s 35th anniversary. The most notorious scene in the X-rated, Academy Award–nominated movie is one in which Schneider’s costar Marlon Brando uses butter as a lubricant while pinning her to the ground and having (simulated) anal sex with her. Schneider, 19 at the time of filming, told Das she “felt a little raped both by Brando and Bertolucci” and described how the scene came to be:
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. 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, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.
Schneider’s remarks were not widely covered at the time (although U.K. website Female First picked them up), but when Schneider died in 2011, most of her obituaries included her account of Last Tango in Paris. Here’s Variety, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, and, yes, Slate. The New York Times mentioned her feelings about the film in two separate articles.
In 2013, Bernardo Bertolucci appeared on Dutch TV show College Tour and confirmed Schneider’s account, telling them he didn’t tell Maria about the scene in advance because he “wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and the humiliation.” The entire episode has been online since February 2013, as has a sound bite–ready clip of Bertolucci’s appallingly blithe answer:
Bertolucci’s appearance on College Tour was ignored by the English-language press, perhaps because the director said more or less exactly the same things about the butter scene in interviews that year with the Hollywood Reporter and the Guardian. Neither interview attracted much secondary attention—but his comments did cause a minor scandal in the Italian press, which ran headlines like “Confessione Shock di Bertolucci,” “Bertolucci Si Pente: Ho Ingannato la Schneider,” and “Bertolucci Confessa La Violenza su Maria Schneider.”
On Saturday, as you’ve probably read by now, Bertolucci’s 2013 College Tour appearance resurfaced, and the content factory did what the content factory does. Here’s coverage from Elle, Variety, Deadline, Vulture, and even the Daily Mail, the outlet that broke this news back in 2007. The story is all over Twitter, where celebrities are weighing in. Here’s Jessica Chastain:
To all the people that love this film- you're watching a 19yr old get raped by a 48yr old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick. https://t.co/qVDom2gYf6— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) December 3, 2016
Wow. I will never look at this film, Bertolucci or Brando the same way again. This is beyond disgusting. I feel rage https://t.co/uvaLogvv7I— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) December 3, 2016
And Anna Kendrick, to whom this wasn’t news:
So why is Bertolucci and Brando’s reprehensible behavior getting such sudden attention? The proximate cause seems to be a Spanish no-profit organization called El Mundo de Alycia, which uploaded an edited version of Bertolucci’s College Tour clip (edited to add context and Spanish subtitles—it’s not a misleading edit or anything) on Nov. 23, for use in a blog post for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Nov. 25. Here’s a rough translation of its reasons for recirculating it:
Although the interview is several years old, it has had practically no repercussions on social networks or in the media. It’s only mentioned in a few articles about erotic films. … We ask ourselves how it’s possible that a serious case like this hasn’t made its way into public opinion and been denounced. Unfortunately, it’s one more clear-cut example of the gendered violence women are subjected to daily without any kind of consequences.
El Mundo de Alycia is right to say that Bertolucci’s comments about Last Tango In Paris didn’t lead to a social media furor at the time, but they weren’t exactly a secret. Schneider’s account has been on the film’s Wikipedia page since 2007 and Bertolucci’s Wikipedia page since 2012 (in a section called “The scandal of Last Tango in Paris”). It was literally impossible to do even the most cursory research of the film or its director without encountering this story. This isn’t a case of a woman’s account of sexual assault suddenly becoming credible when a man weighs in either: Bertolucci confirmed the story in multiple English-language outlets in 2013. So what happened this time? Has social media become more prone to outrage cycles? Well, 2013 was the year of Justine Sacco, so: no. Has our tolerance for sexual assault changed that much in three short years? Maybe—the allegations against Bill Cosby, which started in earnest in 2005, didn’t get widespread media attention until 2014. But 2013 was also the year of Blue Is the Warmest Color, which raised the same questions about directors exploiting young actresses and produced its own think-piece cycle, so this seems like an unlikely explanation as well.
Or maybe people just didn’t know about it or want to believe it. Anna Kendrick reports people rolling their eyes when she mentioned it, and—as with most facts that are inconvenient to men or to money—there’s certainly no shortage of people who will feign uncertainty where there is none. And very few of the Blue Is the Warmest Color pieces make the easy connection to Bertolucci (though both films show up on “Actresses Who Were Terrorized by Directors” listicles). Everyone’s got to find out about this stuff somehow; it’s good if more people know about Maria Schneider’s treatment on the set of Last Tango in Paris, just like it’s good that more people learned about Tippi Hedren’s treatment on the set of The Birds when it inexplicably became news again a few months ago. If this crop of Last Tango in Paris stories is the data point that lets someone finally see the shape of the system, so much the better. El Mundo de Alycia did what they set out to do, getting Schneider’s story wider exposure and Bertolucci denounced—as he surely deserves—and maybe one cycle of media coverage of a fact that was already easy to find will be enough. But the Hitchcock/Hedren story, first reported in the 1980s, was all over the internet in 2008, then in 2012, then in 2016—a four -ear cycle of outrage and forgetting. So we can probably expect the news about Last Tango in Paris to break again in 2020, when it will shock the world anew. Watch this space.
Here are Bertolucci’s 2013 College Tour remarks in their entirety:
Poor Maria. She died, she died two years ago, I think. And I was incredibly sad. After the movie we really didn’t see each other, because she was hating me. The scene you have just seen before, which is called the sequence of the butter, is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting it. It was in the script that he had to rape her in a way. And we were having with Marlon breakfast on the floor of the flat where we were shooting. And there was a baguette and there was butter, and we looked at each other and without saying anything, we knew what we wanted. But, I’ve been, in a way, horrible to Maria because I didn’t tell her what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated, if it goes on, she shouts, “No, no!” And I think that she hated me, and also Marlon, because we didn’t tell her, and there was that detail of the butter used as a lubricant, and I still feel very guilty for that.
Do you regret that you shot the scene like you did?
No, but I feel guilty. I feel guilty but I do not regret. You know, to make movies, sometime, to obtain something, I think that you have to be completely free. I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and the humiliation. Then she hated me for all her life.