The rape scene in Last Tango in Paris is one of cinema’s most infamous, featuring a then 19-year-old Maria Schneider pinned down by 48-year-old Marlon Brando on a living room floor. The shot is spare, uncompromising and enormously disturbing—and, it turns out, planned without Schneider’s knowledge or consent.
In a 2013 interview with the Dutch TV show College Tour, director Bernardo Bertolucci revealed that he and Brando had conspired together on the scene—in which Brando used a smear of butter as lubricant—without notifying Schneider as to how it would play out. Bertolucci said that after the movie wrapped, he and Schneider no longer saw each other because “she was hating me.”
Why’s that?, the host asked. Bertolucci went on to say that the “butter scene” was “an idea I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting it.” The two were eating breakfast together when inspiration struck.
“There was a baguette, and there was butter, and we looked at each other. And without saying anything, we knew what we wanted.” The crowd tittered.
“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.”
Bertolucci said he still feels guilty, but not so guilty that he regrets shooting the scene as he did.
“To make movies sometimes, 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 humiliation.”
Bertolucci achieved his desired effect at the bargain basement price of another human being’s dignity—a steal, really, for the many accolades the film brought. His manner suggests that if he feels any contrition at all, it’s borne of his own discomfort at Schneider’s lifelong resentment toward him.
In 2007, Schneider gave an interview to the Daily Mail recalling the scene:
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.
“Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,” said the 48-year-old megastar to the 19-year-old newcomer, because if there’s one coup de grâce that never fails to subdue the victim of gross exploitation, it’s to tell them that they’re being ridiculous. This has the dual effect of both summarily invalidating one’s pain while simultaneously sowing doubts about their own strength and sanity. It’s very popular.
Bertolucci’s admission is hardly revelatory—as Slate points out, both interviews have been floating around for years, and the director even repeated his halfhearted lamentation in subsequent interviews. It seems it was re-upped by a Spanish non-profit called El Mundo de Alycia for use in a November blog post for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This time, for whatever reason, his statements took, igniting a firestorm of tweets from actors and directors. (Many of the tweets are in reaction to the idea that the rape was real—while the violation of trust was certainly authentic, the rape itself was simulated.)
Schneider, though, did not live to see her ordeal widely decried. She spent her life struggling with addiction and mental health problems before dying in 2011 at the age of 58.
Bertolucci, who is now 76, has not surfaced for comment.