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The lasting impact of that scene in Last Tango in Paris

44 years after one of most famous rape scenes in cinematic history, Hollywood is still using sexual violence in complicated ways.

Last Tango in Paris

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris. Photo, Canadian Press.

If you’re a typical consumer of media, whether Facebook and Twitter or TV and movies, chances are you’ve noticed the subject of rape popping up in your feed or Sunday-night binge watching lineup. Whether it’s actor Gabrielle Union weighing in on the allegations against her Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker, or it’s the back story on Jessica Jones about her abduction and rape, we’ve begun talking about sexual violence against women more frequently and with more candour.

The aim, in most cases, is a good one: awareness, change, progress. But more discussion also comes with more pitfalls. One such pitfall was revealed in the recent coverage of an interview from 2013 with Last Tango in Paris director Bernardo Bertolucci. It concerned the so-called “butter scene,” one of the most famous moments from the 1972 erotic film.

If you’re not familiar, there’s no way to put it delicately: Marlon Brando, who plays a widowed American having an affair with a much younger French woman, played by Maria Schneider, anally rapes her using a stick of butter as a lubricant.

In the interview, Bertolucci admits that Schneider never consented to doing the rape scene. He said he and Brando came up with the idea over breakfast on the morning they shot it: “There was a baguette, there was butter and we looked at each other and, without saying anything, we knew what we wanted.” Within hours, the story was circulating on social media, often accompanied by the disturbing image of Brando pinning down Schneider while she cries.

To be clear, there was no actual penetration involved, but Schneider was violated nonetheless — the scene was plotted and executed without her consent. Bertolucci said there was reason to keep Schneider in the dark. He wanted her “reaction as a girl, not as an actress,” he said, explaining “I wanted her to feel – not to act – the rage and humiliation.”

His plan worked. Thirty-five years later, Schneider told the press, “During the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears,” adding that she only found out about the rape scene just before shooting. “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.”


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Bertolucci has said he doesn’t regret the scene, but admits he had been “horrible” to Schneider.  There’s a lot that’s horrible in this account: Bertolucci’s cavalier attitude, for one, and the age and power difference between Schneider, who was an unknown 19 year-old at the time of the shooting, and Brando, the 48-year-old Hollywood legend who conspired with their director — another powerful, older man — behind her back.

The choice of many media outlets, like Variety and Yahoo Movies, to show the image of Schneider’s humiliation, feels like a further violation of the actress, who died in 2011 and can’t respond to any of this. There can be legitimate news value and social good in publicly releasing images of an assault, when it exposes a crime or draws attention to systemic abuse of some kind. In this case, though, the inclusion of the image seemed to reflect a competing desire to condemn Bertolucci and Brando and to titillate audiences with the notorious scene. The movie, after all, is not difficult to find — why not let those who want to seek it out?

Bertolucci has since released a statement to say that his 2013 comments have been misinterpreted and that the rape scene was in the script — it was only including butter as a prop that was a surprise to Schneider. But even if what occurred wasn’t technically rape, Bertolucci continues to justify the sexual humiliation and exploitation of Schneider as “art” — it was okay to hurt her for entertainment’s sake.

Last Tango in Paris may have been shot over 40 years ago, but echoes of this sort of violation-as-art resonate in today’s culture, albeit without the actual violation. Prestige TV dramas like Jessica JonesGame of Thrones and Westworld show plenty of graphic sexual violence, not to mention naked bodies — mostly women, often in non-speaking roles and often merely as sexy backdrops.

Westworld. Photo, HBO.

Thandie Newton in Westworld. Photo, HBO.

As one female TV writer put it in a Variety story about sexual violence on TV, “For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character. You can use it as a reason for anything she might do. She’s ‘damaged goods,’ physically, emotionally and mentally, and I think that is a bad, bad message to send to women who have been sexually assaulted.”

That said, Evan Rachel Wood, who stars in Westworld and recently spoke about being a rape survivor herself, has defended her show. “I don’t like gratuitous violence against women at all,” she said, “but the way it’s being used [in the series] is very much a commentary and a look at our humanity and why we find these things entertaining.”

It can be tough, though, to differentiate between portraying rape as a way to address violence against women and portraying rape as entertainment. It’s even tougher in slickly produced shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld, where the horror of violence is often muted by the shows’ stylishness.

How sexual violence is portrayed in film and television and covered in the media matters a great deal — from the language used to describe victims to the images used to illustrate stories to the person whose point of view is at the centre of a scene of violence (is it the victim’s or the assailant’s?). In the end, was the audience challenged and moved, and left with a greater understanding of sexual assault? Or was the sexual violence merely a plot device, or an arousing thrill, or a reiteration of damaging myths about rape (such as, women are “asking for it”)?

The saddest part of Schneider’s experience is that Last Tango in Paris took so much from her and left her with so little. Brando and Bertolucci were both nominated for Oscars; she was overlooked, and afterwards, even as Brando and Bertolucci were hailed as serious artists, she was typecast as a sex kitten. She struggled with depression, addiction and even attempted suicide. She went on to make other movies, but was always defined by Last Tango in Paris. In all those subsequent roles, though, she refused to shoot any more nude scenes.

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