She wrote: “So famous people have now repudiated the rape scene in The Last Tango in Paris Maria Schneider denounced years ago, but but you only believed it when one of the rapists finally admitted to the crime. I’m thinking of the technicians who watched in silence the live spectacle of woman being violated. Most of them were probably men, and they never said a word. Instead they left the ‘mad’ Schneider screaming on her own for decades. They are all accomplices. All captured on film and celebrated as a cinema masterpiece. At that moment, they destroyed the life of a 19-year-old girl, who then became ‘the butter woman’ and gets raped every time a man gets aroused or ejaculates to the scene. Forty years being raped. Accomplices. Accomplices. Co-authors.”
The words above came from my friend Tainá Moraes, who shared her frustration and anger about the latest Bertolucci controversy with her friends on Facebook. The Brazilian designer and art history student, mother to one child, felt that the Italian director was an accessory to the rape of Maria Schneider during the filming on the famous/infamous butter sequence with Marlon Brando in his 1971 classic Last Tango in Paris. She also felt that the conspicuous absence of public commotion when Schneider first denounced the events in an interview in 2007 makes us all accomplices of a very heinous crime.
The Italian director confessed that the rape sequence was non-consensual in an interview in 2013 (below), that has now resurfaced. He then tried to play it down by arguing that only the butter element wasn’t disclosed in the film script, but that Schneider was aware of the violence all along. One way or another, there was at least one non-consensual element in the sequence. We must not underestimate its impact on the actress’s subsequent life – regardless of whether this constitutes constitutes rape from a legal perspective or not. The French artist never again filmed another sex scene and she suffered from depression until her untimely death to cancer in 2011, suggesting that the events indeed afflicted the woman for the rest of her life.
I personally don’t hold the view that every single person aroused by the scene and the crew were rapists, and that all viewers were accomplices. I am also not convinced that Brando is a rapist and Bertolucci an accessory to rape because we just don’t have enough evidence about what happened and – since Schneider is now dead – never will. We simply don’t know how much of the violence was non-consensual in order to make a judgement “beyond reasonable doubt”.
Yet I think that Tainá’s words are extremely relevant because they illustrate what likely went through Maria Schneider’s mind for four decades. Even if she wasn’t, Schneider probably felt that she being raped – and she probably harboured this feeling for the rest of her life. It took 35 years for Schneider to open up about what happened that day. It’s a safe assumption that she struggled to talk about the incident, and that it continued to haunt her for the rest of her life, taking its toll on her mental health, career, relationships and pretty much everything else.
Sexual liberation backfired
Cinema is a very powerful weapon. It can raise awareness of a cause, give a group a sense of identity, give unsung artists a voice, speak up for marginalised communities, immortalise people and moments. Sadly, it had precisely the opposite and undesired effect in this case: the success of Last Tango in Paris perpetuated Maria Schneider’s unspoken pain.
Ironically, Last Tango in Paris became a symbol of the sexual liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, which now makes this discussion ever so urgent and pertinent. How could a woman be raped and traumatised at a time when sexual freedoms were encouraged and celebrated? Was the sexual liberation of women merely for the pleasure of men? Can you force sexual liberation on someone? These questions are rhetorical, rest assured. Their answers are bright as daylight.
Bertolucci made at least two very serious mistakes. Firstly, the non-consensual act – regardless of whether it was just the butter or not. Secondly, his initial hesitance in recognising the seriousness of the situation, – dismissing the controversy instead as “ridiculous” – only aggravated it, revealing a sheer insensitivity towards female feelings and vulnerabilities. The director’s attitude undermines the sexual movement of which he became an exponent. After all, there is no sexual liberation without multiple respect. Sexual freedom is not the same as profligacy. Liberty is not libertarianism.