Content warning: This article discusses difficult topics, including rape.
Fifty years ago Last Tango in Paris scandalised the world and roused many respected critics, who praised it as radical and iconic. The film’s descent from fame to infamy, as the moral landscape around it rebooted over time, is salutary. Director Bernardo Bertolucci’s brutal takedown of bourgeois film-making, relationships and, indeed, competitive tango dancing is still astonishing, but watching it now makes me feel like I’ve been dipped in sleaze.
Yet I would not rush to shut the film away forever in the “banned” box. It merits re-examination, as much for what happened off stage as on camera. Last Tango has powerful resonances worth unpacking now, not least in the character of Paul, an American brilliantly played by a 48-year-old Marlon Brando with a slobby swagger that brings to mind Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein. Paul bullies and manipulates Jeanne, 19-year-old Maria Schneider, into increasingly compromised sex. Plus ça change. Their Parisian affair is an eternal insight into coercive control.
In the age of #MeToo and Time’s Up, the movie has been excoriated. In 2018 there was further outcry over the idea cooked up by Bertolucci and Brando over their breakfast baguette to surprise Schneider by using butter as a lubricant during a scripted anal rape scene. The director wanted to see the actress’s “real reaction of frustration and rage” on camera. As Schneider told the Daily Mail in 2007: “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 apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.” The trauma and the instant worldwide fame left Schneider in pieces, dealing with drugs and a breakdown. The men moved on to greater things.
The simulated rape scene got Bertolucci a four-month suspended prison sentence in Italy, and the court ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed. The scandal just added to salacious interest in the art film, taking it into the mainstream. Last Tango was hugely popular from the start, making it into the top ten at the American box office in 1972, and exploding internationally in 1973. The sex is, on the whole, nasty, brutish and short – it takes Paul less than two minutes to be done and dusted in his first up-against-the-wall encounter with Jeanne in a dilapidated flat in the wealthy 16th arrondissement. It’s questionable whether much pleasure was had by Jeanne.
Actually, that swift timing is very Parisian. The city’s habit of the cinq à sept, the affair between finishing work and returning to the family home, requires efficiency. When the former president Jacques Chirac was having an affair, the French press nicknamed him “cinq minutes douche comprise” – five minutes including the shower. Last Tango fits that tradition, or as Bertolucci once said: “In our society even adultery becomes a bourgeois institution.” So he tried to upend the institution by rendering lovemaking perfunctory and transgressive on screen.
The two lovers here meet as strangers, by chance, separately viewing the grand, decrepit rental apartment with its blood-red stained carpet and dirty walls. Paul gets the keys – and then confidently gets the girl. In the age of Tinder and Grindr – in a world in thrall to anonymous, pseudonymous, instant sex – it seems weirdly familiar that Last Tango’s lovers initially play out their encounters in an anonymous bubble: Paul insists they remain strangers and that they do not reveal their names or any background to each other; their only intimate knowledge is sexual.
Naturally, this brings about a hunger in the audience to know more. It emerges that Paul’s French wife, Rosa, who ran what might be described as a love hotel, has recently committed suicide in one of the rooms. Paul is insane with incomprehension, guilt and self-loathing as he runs to escape his past. You can read his angry outbursts and brutality as a form of grief. Or not.
We see more of Jeanne’s milieu – a hippy, dippy, carefree life where she strolls around Paris with her young, pretentious film-maker fiancé Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Bertolucci is clearly poking fun at lesser directors, but at the same time we see how Jeanne is manipulated by Tom, just as she is manipulated by Paul. Tom has his crew film his romantic reunion with Jeanne as she arrives at the railway station, an exploitative reality TV moment that she does not expect. In another scene in the Métro, she yells at Tom from the opposite platform, and he makes a rectangle with his fingers, framing her, owning her visually. A train rattles into the station and she shouts: “I’m tired of being raped!”
Interestingly, cries of rape were not made by the leading critics of the time. Such were the optics of the early Seventies. Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Norman Mailer in the New York Review of Books did not seem to consider the anal sex scene as a rape, as the affair continued. But the real fan of the film was the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who compared the premiere at the New York Film Festival to the riotous first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring long before. “Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement… the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism,” wrote Kael. “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made… Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?”
There were other women who supported the film, like the French director Agnès Varda, who helped write the French dialogue for Bertolucci. But it’s the English dialogue, Paul’s damaged dirty sex talk, that leaves the audience (intentionally) sickened by the degradation: “I’m gonna get a pig and have it fuck you and vomit in your face and you have to swallow the vomit and then go behind it and smell the guts of the pig.”
Jeanne’s eventual revenge is satisfying. I think there can be no spoilers for a film that is half a century old: Paul invades Jeanne’s family house, declaring his love after she leaves him, and she gives him what he deserves – a bullet in the stomach from her father’s gun, left over from his colonial tour in Algeria. Is the death of Paul the death of male dominance in the film, or is it just cover for a couple of hours of lurid exploitation?
I worked for seven years as a film critic, and attended the first meeting of Time’s Up in London in early 2018, a few months after the Weinstein story broke. The movement set out to end the exploitative culture of the casting couch. In the room, a number of British actresses spoke out about their recent traumatic experiences before and during filming; of a director of a mafia movie asking to see actresses’ breasts at an audition before casting the part. When this particular actress said no, the director said “Next!”. And that’s how you lose a job.
Now the British Film Institute has a set of regulations on bullying, harassment and racism on set. There’s a duty of care to a young actress, and indeed anyone who has to take their clothes off. At Time’s Up I met intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, who choreographed the (safe) sex scenes in I May Destroy You and the lockdown hit Normal People. She talked about the mismatch in power on a production, and that from audition to action, actors must know ahead of time and consent to the amount of nudity or the acts required.
But in Brando and Bertolucci’s day, nudity and bizarre sex acts were the meat of mainstream cinema. I was shocked when I looked back at the American box office top ten for 1972. At number one was The Godfather, obviously, (with an Oscar-winning performance from Brando), but at number five there was Deep Throat, a key moment in the so-called “Golden Age of Porn”, which featured Linda Lovelace as a woman who supposedly had a clitoris in her throat. At number four was Deliverance, with duelling banjos, a male anal rape in the mountains, and the famous “squeal like a pig” catchphrase. Just outside the top ten was Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask).
In 1972, cinematic sex of all varieties was part of mainstream culture, debate and entertainment, whereas now it exists privately and furtively on phones and laptops, without wider discussion. Cut to the top ten box office hits of 2021 and movies are mostly about superheroes or supercars. From the top, Spider-Man, Shang-Chi, Venom, Black Widow, Fast and Furious F9, Eternals…
Clearly the Seventies were our Freudian anal, sexual phase in cinema, and 50 years later, we are obsessed – perhaps in a Nietzschean Übermensch way – with superheroes. Adult films, in the intellectual and sexual sense, are no longer wanted except in arthouse cinemas.
Whatever you think of Last Tango in Paris, it raises doubts, questions, shame and fears which are worth examining. CBS Studios agrees. It has just announced it is making a drama series, Tango, about the events around the filming. José Padilha of Narcos will be co-directing and says: “Tango tells the story of two men abusing a young and inexperienced woman, not for sex, but for the sake of art.” Meanwhile the other director, Lisa Brühlmann of Killing Eve, says: “The possibility of giving Maria Schneider a voice is really exciting.” The dance is not over.
Kate Muir’s book Everything You Need to Know About the Menopause (but Were Too Afraid to Ask) is published by Gallery Books.
This piece first appeared in the Anniversary edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll have received your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.
Photographs United Artists, Mondadori Portfolio, Sunset Boulevard/Corbis, Getty Images, Alamy