Over the last few days, the internet has flown into a frenzy after a lost interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci surfaced, wherein he seemed to suggest that the controversial 1972 erotic drama Last Tango In Paris, a film depicting a man’s affair with an unnamed woman following his wife’s suicide, actually showed the real-life rape of then-19-year-old actress Maria Schneider.
Celebrities and everyday citizens alike, including actress Jessica Chastain and actor Chris Evans, took to social media to express their disgust following the revelation that the infamous “butter scene” – wherein Brando’s character Paul uses butter as a lubricant before brutally forcing himself on his lover – was, in fact, a graphic sexual assault premeditated by Bertolucci and Brando in order to incite a ‘realistic’ response from Schneider.
“The sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting (…) I wanted her (Schneider’s) reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to act humiliated, if it goes on, she shouts “No, no!” These are the words uttered during a live recording by Bertolucci at the Cinematheque Francaise, Paris, in a clip published by Spanish non-profit organisation El Mundo de Alycia in recognition of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
It is alleged that he and Brando decided prior to the scene’s filming that they would not tell Schneider what was to happen with the butter, in order to depict a natural experience of being assaulted for cinematic effect.
Following the outcry for action, the film’s cinematographer and three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro has declared the accusations as “ridiculous (…) What Bernardo said later was he would like to apologise to Maria, only because he probably didn’t explain to her at the beginning what was discussed with Brando. Nothing happened during the shooting.”
However, almost a decade ago, an interview with Schneider, who died of cancer in 2011, took place that seems to dispute Storaro’s argument, and reduces the days-old controversy to old news that was simply brushed under the rug.
“The history of Hollywood is paved with stories of abuse; be it fictional or very, very real, it is inescapable and incredibly concerning.”
Back in 2007, Schneider discussed her disassociation from Bertolucci following the film, and regarding the scene, she said: “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” Following the film, she struggled with drugs, suicide attempts and acute public and media interest in her.
Her confession did not spark an outrage. There was no hashtag, no protests, and there certainly were not any repercussions for her director or co-star. Schneider herself said: “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.”
This film was not the first to use rape as a cheap gimmick and, sadly, it definitely wasn’t the last. Even beloved pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones has been heavily criticised for its inclusion of so-called ‘trauma porn,’ in order to stimulate a visceral reaction from the audience through the medium of voyeurism.
The show is renowned for depicting extreme bloody violence and sexual intercourse, but it is arguably almost always for a purpose, such as demonstrating the morals and motivations of the characters. However, the hugely popular adaptation deviates considerably from scenes in the original novels, with the addition of gratuitous sexual assault seemingly for nothing but rating boosts prompted by online debate.
The history of Hollywood is paved with stories of abuse; be it fictional or very, very real, it is inescapable and incredibly concerning. Despite thousands of victims coming forward, particularly, as we have all seen, over the past year, nothing is being done, and the film and television industries remain terrifyingly unphased.
“By refusing to acknowledge the existence of widespread sexual assault or downplaying its severity, we are contributing to the problem.”
Director Jean-Claude Brisseau was issued a year-long suspended sentence and a fine of 15,000 euros for sexual harassment, following his manipulation of actresses who he forced into masturbating for him during auditions for his film ‘Secret Things’. His response, post rehabilitation? To release a new film, The Exterminating Angels, depicting a director selecting actresses for a project about female eroticism. The punishment did not fit the crime, and as such, had zero effect on Brisseau’s success or ability to work in the industry, and this is just one of millions of examples of injustice.
Jeremy Slater, director of The Exorcist elaborated on sexual assault for shock value as “a plague to the industry”, stating that out of 200 scripts he gets “30 or 40 of them opened with a rape or had a pretty savage rape at some point”.
Outside the film industry, the problem is even more frightening, with ongoing accusations of rape, the constant berating and abuse of women and female staff, and alleged child sexual assault. What better representation of this than the election of Donald Trump, whose sexist remarks are representative of what’s wrong with rape culture.
So what can we do? Sure, we could boycott every show, video game, book and film that features pervasive sexual violence, but in the grand scheme of things, that would do nothing, and ignores the bigger picture
The conundrum is that as long as depictions of assault are wrapped in neat shows and well-selling films that capitalise on the representation of one of the most unethical acts a human being could ever commit, the studios will keep on taking advantage. Ethically, studios and filmmakers need to draw the line, and need to recognise when rape is being used for simple shock value, and how damaging this is for film culture and society as a whole.
By refusing to acknowledge the existence of widespread sexual assault or downplaying its severity, we are contributing to the problem. Sharing articles, talking to friends and Twitter activism are an excellent contribution, but something major has to happen to tackle these critical circumstances we find ourselves in. I don’t know what that solution is, but making others aware is the first step in a long path to change.
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Media sourced by Les Productions Artistes Associés, HBO, Pop Screen