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The dark side of Hollywood: Bernardo Bertolucci and the infamous butter scene


Bernardo Bertolucci. That name conjures up all manner of conflicting connotations. One of Italy’s most challenging and unflinching directors, Bertolucci is responsible for crafting the likes of Last Tango In Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987) and The Dreamers (2003), all of which earned him numerous awards and made him an essential part of the cinematic landscape. However, he was also the focus of a great deal of public scrutiny right up until his death in 2018 at the age of 77. Even now, the dark legacy of what is frequently described as his greatest film, Last Tango In Paris, casts an ever-expanding shadow over his life and work.

The controversy was present right from the off. On release, Last Tango In Paris caused a stir for a scene in which Paul (Marlon Brando) rapes Jeanne Maria Schneider using butter as an improvised lubricant. Bertolucci always maintained that the scene had been pre-arranged and that Schneider had given her consent. However, in 2007, the actress revealed that this was not, in fact, the case – arguing that the scene had never been in the original script and that Bertolucci had only told her about a few moments before filming began. In an interview in 2007, she recalled how the director arranged the scene to be filmed in the most brutal way possible, with Brando hitting her for real. “I was so angry,” she began, clearly still shaken by the incident so many years later. “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci”.

Bertolucci was condemned for his actions by some and entirely forgiven by others, with the latter winning out. For several years, the world was aware of the director’s misgivings but was unwilling to confront them fully. Then, in 2013, in the midst of the #MeToo movement that saw the dark heart of Hollywood wrenched from its sun-baked chest, the scene was put under the microscope once again. In 2013, a clip in which Bertolucci describes his motivations behind the scene went viral, sparking outrage. That same year, he gave an interview in which he attempted to rid himself of the obvious guilt he felt at the prospect that Schneider, who had died two years earlier, had lived her life in the shadow of that film and the disturbing scene in question. “Poor Maria,” Bertolucci began. “I didn’t have the occasion to go to ask her to forgive me. She was a 19-year-old who, like the actors in Me and You, had never acted before”.

But rather than seeing her age as a reason to look after her on set, Bertolucci, with an insane lack of empathy, felt that it would be better for her to be unaware of what was going to happen to her, all for the sake of authenticity. “Maybe, sometimes in the movie, I didn’t tell her what was going on because I knew her acting would be better. So, when we shot this scene with Marlon [Brando] using butter on her, I decided not to tell her. I wanted a reaction of frustration and rage,” the director said.

These comments reveal the heart of the issue. It’s very easy to focus on the shocking visual impact of that infamous scene, meaning that we often forget about the man sitting behind the camera. This man believed so much in his own authority that he felt entitled to take agency away from a 19-year-old girl at the dawn of her film career. In his 2013 apology, he still clearly believed he made the right decision. “I knew her actions would be better”, he said, “I knew”, he added. Even in retrospect, he seemed to regard Schneider’s suffering as a necessary sacrifice that would benefit the piece in the long run. But, is a 180-minute film really worth the destruction of somebody’s life? I don’t think so.