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Boundaries in Artistic Expression - 'Last Tango in Paris'

Depicting sexual violence in art has always been controversial. I don’t mean to suggest in this article that the free expression of art should be hindered, for that of course is the beauty of art. Its ability to fill the ‘creative void’ with both the highs and the pitfalls of human nature. To suggest ‘barriers’ be put to limit the extremities of art limits creative freedom and exploration which is only at the detriment of us all. To suggest restriction on what art should or should not explore would deprive the collective human race of the ability to evaluate, debate, educate and challenge, and I myself feel privileged to be exposed to all levels of creative material, whether that be through a literary medium, photography or film (even though I will never understand the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey… Seems widely popular though, so I may be missing the point.)

However, in contradiction to the opinion I have just expressed, there are limits, and nothing has demonstrated this more than the startling revelation of ‘Last Tango in Paris’ director Bernardo Bertolucci. The revelation came from a 2011 interview that was unearthed recently where Bertolucci admitted that the infamous ‘butter’ rape scene, that saw 48 – year – old Marlon Brando force himself upon 19 year – old Maria Schneider, was non – consensual. Perhaps that previous statement is misleading. Brando himself was not deceived on the contents of the scene which was neglected from the scripts, and had himself been the orchestrator of the idea along with director Bertolucci who decided it most benefiting that Schneider be left unaware of this obscene addition to the script. In direct quotation Bertolucci even went as far to suggest he wanted Schneider’s reaction to be ‘that of a girl not of an actress’, citing he wished her to personally be ‘humiliated.’ If Maria’s subsequent actions since the film release in 1972 are anything to go by, he succeeded. She later claimed she felt ‘a little raped’ and that her tears in the scene where Brando used a stick of butter as a lubricant a genuine reaction to being subjected to the action she had not consented nor prepared for. Her reaction was so genuine Bertolucci saw no need for more than a single take. I am surprised Bertolucci was not the target of stone throwers as he exited from his interview. The concoction of Brando and Bertolucci’s did not only damage what should have been a successful career of Maria Schneider, but till the day she died (tragically at 58 after a long bout of illness) she received no apology from either man who had degraded her not only as an actress but as an woman.

Bertolucci’s confession is staggeringly offensive for a variety of reasons. Despite Maria’s young age and relative inexperience as a performer her harrowing performance in ‘Last Tango in Paris’ both illuminates her talent as an actress and suggests a versatility to have responded in a believable manner to a rape scene if she had so wished to. Bertolucci would not be the first director to express a desire for the ultimate realism and truth to his film. Theatre practitioner Stanislavski’s slightly manipulated ‘system’ (followed religiously by many prominent American actors from the 50’s, Brando included) labelled ‘the method’ takes its core from this principle of ‘belief’ from an actor. The ability of art to league itself with reality makes the connection much stronger from an audience so this aim of Bertolucci’s some might see as a man too passionately involved in creating the maximum impact of his creation to such a degree that in an ironic sense he forgot he was working with people. Personally, I think the decision was unforgivable. A destructive violation of her as a human being, one newspaper hailed it as ‘a landmark in movie history’, the Le Journal de Dimanche labelled it ‘one of the most important films in our history.’ The truth of this critique stretches far wider than these reviews could have intended. This film is hugely significant for all the wrong reasons, Brando and Bertolucci lambasted all of Maria Schneider’s rights as a human being, insulting her as both a woman and an actress and abusing their powerful positions to such a degree Maria later claimed she had no idea that she could refuse to do something that wasn’t in the script. This was a complete manipulation of Maria’s naivety in where law plays into the ‘goings on’ of the artistic world. The most impactful art is usually the result of great suffering, most authors usually admit to weaving in slight autobiographical references into their work and some of the best work is derived from this. However, Bertolucci’s ‘masterpiece’ should by no means have stemmed from Schneider being used to fulfil this artistic aim. It is of great discredit to her talent to suggest anything otherwise. It was well within Schneider’s ability to ‘act’ this scene. As a human, it was her right to decide whether she wished to.

The revelation raises questions as to the place of ethics in art. Surely the best art should come from the consent and collective aim of all those involved in the expression? What we witness in ‘Last Tango in Paris’ is abominable. Bertolucci later claimed he did not regret his decision of a non – consensual rape scene, and in many senses the scene is truly harrowing for it, but at a horrific unnecessary cost that undermines the purpose of ‘art’.  Schneider, unfortunately, will become symbolic of the blurred boundaries in creative freedom, and Bertolucci’s ‘landmark’ movie can never be viewed in quite the same manner as it was before.

By Niamh Collins


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