Panning Out: What the Bertolucci Rape Controversy Tells Us About Men and Gods

I’ve been a little bit frustrated this week. Sunday morning—or was it Saturday?—I awoke to my Facebook feed filled with shock and upset over a resurfaced news item in which filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci confirmed his role in a sex scene involving actors Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando during the filming of Last Tango in Paris in 1972.


At first I thought my frustration was because of what happened to Ms. Schneider, but that’s not it—I feel anger, loss, and bitter hurt for a woman whose autonomy was robbed from her by a director seeking authenticity. My feelings of frustration are rooted in something else: First, that it took Bertolucci sharing his story for people to finally believe something an actress has been saying for decades; second, that in expressing our anger at the filmmaker as individual, we miss an opportunity for a much larger discussion; and third (because there’s always a third—), this is all feeling too damn familiar.

Say we’re watching a film. When we as viewers are shown part of an object onscreen and the camera suddenly pans out, revealing more of the object, it seems as though we have a full understanding of what’s happening. This isn’t necessarily the case—usually there is even more of the object to be seen, and from there we wonder what is behind the object, who is holding the object, who is shooting the scene, etc., etc. There are always so many more questions to be asked, and much more information to be gleaned.

My chief frustration with the Bertolucci admission (and subsequent reaction) is rooted in media inability to represent the full picture. When a filmmaker states in plain language that yes, he planned and executed the staged rape of a 19-year-old girl, we react as though we have a full view of the scene. We feel justifiable anger at the director as an individual, and anger at those complicit in this staged rape (in this instance, the 48-year-old Marlon Brando).

But our perspective is too limited—our anger fails to address the fact that the system allowed and still allows for this sort of violation to happen. This latest instance reveals nothing new, and I mean that in every way—Maria Schneider was vocal about her traumatic experiences making Last Tango in Paris throughout the remainder of her career, speaking to the Daily Mail in 2007 and saying that after filming, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” The director verified Schneider’s account in 2013, clarifying that it wasn’t the act itself that was kept from the actress but rather the details of the act. This is, apparently, a key distinction to the filmmaker, though I’m not sure why.

I’m also not sure why our collective outrage is only now emerging, and why is it aimed solely at the director and actor immediately involved. Perhaps some of us were too young to fully understand the issue when it first went public, and perhaps it’s easier to place blame on one man than on an entire system that exploits its women.

I feel the outrage too, of course—as survivors of rape and sexual assault, so many of us have come to recognize male entitlement to women’s bodies—entitlement that’s dripping from Bertolucci’s attempted justification of the event. “[I] wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated,” he said in a 2013 Q&A at La Cinémathèque française in Paris. In other words, he did it for his art, and I think we should consider the possibility that if a man’s art requires the staged rape of a 19-year-old girl, then maybe the art isn’t very good to begin with.

Bertolucci saw Schneider as something less than himself—certainly less than Brando, who, according to Bertolucci, was his co-conspirator for the scene in question. Which is another interesting point—for all Brando’s history with method acting, what would he call this? I’m very interested to know how men’s minds must contort in attempt to rationalize this sort of behavior.

Bernardo Bertolucci says he was driven by art. I’m baffled by his conclusion that this staging would somehow be artful, or revolutionary, or any number of things. This is status quo mentality reaffirming status quo behavior. Bertolucci, in writing a scene of female sexual humiliation, is yet another man contributing to the cultural violation of women. It’s not exactly novel, is it?

And Bertolucci’s attitudes are still very much present in many male filmmakers. Abdellatif Kechiche, in directing Blue is the Warmest Color, pushed the film’s actors to the point where they felt humiliated by the film’s sex scenes, and Léa Seydoux saying of her experience, “I was feeling like a prostitute.” She went on to describe the director’s obsession with realism: “Abdell loves to take his time. He doesn’t like fabrication. He doesn’t want to see you act — he wants to take your soul.” But where is the art in a forced reality? Where is the craft in a rape? How are these instances any different than pornography, and where do we draw the distinctions?

There’s a strange mixture of reality and fantasy that films rely on. With Last Tango in Paris, the director wanted a scene to feel real, so he made sure it was real. Those involved in the mainstream pornography industry within the United States are not that different from Bertolucci—not really. There have certainly been documented cases of coercive pornographers encouraging rape and violation of women, and just over a year ago, there was controversy surrounding porn actor James Deen following rape accusations by multiple women in the industry. Why did Deen’s sexually predatory behavior come as such a surprise then, and why does Bertolucci’s behavior come as one now? We must open our eyes to the full spectrum of abuse and exploitation which men employ, or we will be shocked each time something surfaces.

Often, when we consider both the film industry and the porn industry, we fool ourselves into believing a good portion of it is just fantasy, although of course to those directly involved it is material reality. For all its benefits, technology has in some ways limited our ability to empathize because it has created for us a world of near-reality. We are presented with borderline horrific acts, but because we are on the opposite side of a screen, we feel removed from them. We tell ourselves it’s acceptable, thus it becomes acceptable. I am myself a proponent of the freedom of speech, but too frequently male freedom of speech is placed above women’s freedom to exist.

Whenever it’s revealed a creative or artistic man took part in the exploitation of a woman, we hear it again and again—“Men aren’t gods.” In such a response, there’s always the same lack of surprise, something like an implied- “so what did you expect?” I’m not sure a distinction between men and gods is necessary to get at the root of the problem.

In continuing to revere male creators and artists as idols, we will of course be disappointed to discover they commit acts of sexual abuse or violation, but instead of repeating that men aren’t gods it might be wiser to say that gods aren’t perfect. As male inventions, they reflect male thought. The theme of rape or forced impregnation is present throughout the history of many of the world’s religions—one of the central mysteries of Christianity involves the impregnation of a young girl by a deity and lacks freely given female consent.

Though he was associated with Buddhism for a short period following his 1993 film Little Buddha, Bertolucci remained connected to his childhood Catholicism during Last Tango in Paris. One wonders how the religion may have fed his idea that women are instruments for men and male expression. Bertolucci, in filming Last Tango in Paris, was himself an all-powerful creator, a self-important god who chose to use a woman’s body and emotions for his own expression.

Obviously Bertolucci saying he needed a genuine reaction from Schneider is his own excuse, but should we accept that as truth? I find it more accurate to say Bertolucci was a man who felt as though it was his right to humiliate a woman and violate her boundaries. His art trumped Schneider’s humanity, because to this kind of man it always does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s