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Why Maria Schneider's Back-from-the-Dead Complaint about 'Last Tango in Paris' Demands Our Attention
It should come as no surprise that the long-buried Maria Schneider has emerged as an accusing angel in these last days of 2016. The time of post-truth. The year of the bully.
It was widely reported during the weekend of December 3rd that Schneider, who was 19 when she filmed Last Tango in Paris with Marlon Brando, felt raped by the infamous butter scene. Director Bernardo Bertolucci, who is now 76, said Schneider knew everything about the scene in advance, except the part about the butter, until the day of filming. He feels the rape allegations are a "ridiculous misunderstanding." The sex was simulated and consensual. It was Brando, allegedly, who came up with the idea of using butter. Schneider was not informed because Bertolucci claims he wanted to film her reaction as a young woman, not as an actor. To "steal" from some hidden part of the actor's own life for the sake of getting the truth on film.
Last Tango in Paris was released in 1972.
At the time, Pauline Kael writing for the New Yorker, compared it to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Not everyone feels that way. it’s appropriate that Schneider has risen from the grave, as it were, to be heard in this time when many citizens worry about the metaphorical rape of liberal democracy and the Constitution itself in the aftermath of November's presidential election.
The winner of that contest is on tape admitting that he grabbed and groped women in their genitals. This is an aspect of rape culture, a term that did not exist back in 1972, but against which Schneider's voice now cries out in protest.
That culture says, tacitly and otherwise, that women don’t matter. That they are not only powerless but insignificant. That they were put on earth as “pleasure units” to gratify the whim and caprice of the so-called dominant sex. As Pauline Kael noted in her New Yorker review, “[Brando's character] Paul is working out his aggression on Jeanne.” She says he "carries a yoke of masculine pride and aggression across his broad back; he’s weighed down by it and hung on it.” But here’s the killer line: “We are watching Brando throughout this movie, with all the feedback that that implies, and his willingness to run the full course with a study of the aggression in masculine sexuality and how the physical strength of men lends credence to the insanity that grows out of it gives the film a larger, tragic dignity. If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don’t?”
For this reason, the film may be as artistically important as it is controversial. But I doubt that many viewers see it that way. Although it is routinely praised as a classic, it's appeal is at least partly voyeuristic and pornographic. Ask anyone you know to give a one-word association of what Last Tango is about, and most will reference the butter scene. Even a 1987 episode of the BBC’s staid Inspector Morse mentions it in “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn.”
Chief Inspector Morse: [standing in front of movie poster for The Last Tango In Paris] You ever seen this?
Detective Sergeant Lewis: No!
Chief Inspector Morse: Me neither.
Chief Inspector Morse: My doctor says I should lose some weight, stop eating butter, start eating, uh, polyunsaturates, whatever they are. Not quite the same though, is it, Lewis?
So let’s talk about what happens with that butter
If we were to use an anachronistic term, Jeanne was sodomized, a presumably outdated expression referring to anal intercourse. Which, if you believe the polls, has now been tried at least once by 36% to 40% of women surveyed by magazines like Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health (most of them between the ages of 20 and 24.) Some like it—others hate it. But even those who like it cite increased trust and a kind of inverse power among their reasons for making it a regular part of their sexual repertoire. The principle of consenting adults has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and isn’t it nice to know the feds won’t be sticking their noses into whatever occurs in the privacy of your own bedroom.
However, the root of the word goes back to 1859 and carries the additional meaning "to deceive" and from its earliest etymological sense "to demoralize." (In 2003, the US Supreme Court struck down the Texas same-sex sodomy law and overruled the court’s 1986 decision which upheld Georgia’s sodomy law.) Aside from archaic definitions, the term still connotes submission to an overarching dominant force. In the context of the film, that is exactly what we have. An inexperienced 19-year-old girl and a powerful 48-year-old man. Even though the character Jeanne is a willing participant in Paul’s sexual aggression, the actor Maria Schneider was not. She knew they were going to simulate sex, but she did not know the scene would play out as it did. In this sense, she was a victim. Deceived by both Brando and Bertolucci. Psychically sodomized. And, as she later said during an interview in 2007, she felt “humiliated” and “a little raped.”
"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 apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
To understand why this is terrible, take a look at Azar Nafisi's extraordinary memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran.
"The worst crime committed by totalitarian mindsets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit of their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality." What happens in Tango to Schneider, though not to the character she portrays, is that something was taken from her from which she would never recover. Brando and Bertolucci took advantage of that girl. By removing her right to choose, they created a "totalitarian regime" within the context of shooting that film, and they made Schneider their victim. To borrow Nafisi's analogy, they seized her life and identity as surely as Humbert Humbert seized Lolita's in the Nabokov novel.
Consider the economic aspect of this metaphorical rape.
The 19-year-old Schneider was paid $4,000. for Last Tango. The 48-year-old Brando was paid $250,000 plus 10 percent of the gross, which came to something like $3 million. By 1980, the film, which had an operating budget of $1.2 million, had made $96.3 million gross worldwide. That certainly looks like financial sodomy to me.
The Screen Actors Guild says today’s actors are protected from the kind of humiliation Schneider says she experienced during Tango because everything is negotiated and discussed beforehand.
But Bertolucci kept Schneider in the dark about the butter because he didn’t want her reaction as an actor. He wanted her reaction as Maria, the actual woman.
He wanted to film her fear.
Capture her voice pleading, "No, no!"
Bertolucci says this as if it excuses everything in the name of art. To my mind, it just makes the whole thing worse. There’s a double-standard and hypocrisy in this. In the film, Jeanne (the character) walks away from Brando's Paul leaving him drunk and disheveled while she goes her merry way. In life, Maria Schneider was unable to walk away from it. She was typecast the rest of her life, fell into a downward drug-addicted spiral, and eventually wound up playing Bertha, Mr. Rochester’s violently insane first wife in a 1996 film of Jane Eyre. She did recover from her addictions and continued to act in other films and on TV before her death from cancer in 2011 at the age of 58. So there is that. And yet, if she were my daughter, I would do anything in this world to protect her from people who would do something like that to her before she was 21. Unfortuately, Scheider's biological father, the French actor Daniel Gelin never acknowledged her. So here was this 19-year-old girl, a "hurt child" looking perhaps for a father in the likes of two movie giants who took advantage of her.
As the collective audience, shouldn't we accept some responsibility for this kind of thing?
Isn't it our complicity and our appetite the film was aiming at? Our shadows too. As Pauline Kael noted, Tango was showing us to ourselves.
That’s why Schneider’s coming back from the dead, as it were, seems important at this time. The election of Donald Trump has shown us to ourselves too. As a Civil Rights Attorney I know said recently, “I don’t care about Trump—I worry about all those people who voted for him.” Which ones support the Ku Klux Klan? Who among them ignored the extraordinary number of lies he told during the campaign? How many of them are my neighbors?
The Trump candidacy, with his pussy grabbing, lying and bullying, revealed the dark side of the American electorate. It revealed the rift between liberal democracy and the extremist populism that refers to itself euphemistically as alt-right. In the time of Post-Truth, Maria Schneider is a voice calling for help. “How much longer will you let these things happen?” she asks. How much longer?
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