Connoisseurs of anal sex are mourning the death of Bernardo Bertolucci, who died yesterday aged 76. He was a titan of Italian cinema in the Sixties and Seventies, so younger readers will need to be told who he was.
Bertolucci should not be confused with another director whose name will also forever be associated with anal sex, John Stagliono, the pornographic actor-auteur who works under the nom de rectum ‘Buttman’ and entered European cinema through the backdoor in 1991 with Buttman’s European Vacation. Bertolucci was in no way vulgar and low-minded like Stagliono. He was vulgar and high-minded. He was the Buttman of the intellectuals.
There was plenty of sex in Bertolucci’s films, but you had to stay awake for it. This was how you knew his films were art, not mere entertainment, or even pornography. If it was entertainment, he would have given the people what they want much sooner.
And what did the people want? Revolution, in Bertolucci’s pampered, salon-Maoist imagination. And nudity, put on screen in the name of candor and Chairman Mao, but in a way that also put bourgeois bums on seats.
Back to the bums. There are three bums in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), but only one of them is seen on screen. The bum you see belongs to a young actress, Maria Schneider. In the film, Schneider and Marlon Brando, who is having a midlife crisis, meet for anonymous sex in an apartment in Paris. The soundtrack, various jazz tangos by Brazilian saxophonist Gato Barbieri, is the best part of the film. But the most famous part, indeed the only reason anyone ever saw Last Tango in Paris, is the scene in which Brando sodomizes Schneider, using butter as a lubricant.
Schneider was 19 years old at the time, and almost unknown. Brando was 48. He was running to fat, so refused to disrobe. In 2013, Bertolucci admitted that he and Brando had planned and executed the butter scene as a sexual assault on film.
‘The sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting,” Bertolucci said at La Cinémathèque Française in Paris. He wanted, he said, to film Schneider’s ‘reaction as a girl, not as an actress’ — a ‘reaction of frustration and rage’.
Her reaction, that is, to be sexually assaulted on film. Today, Peter Pulver, film editor of the Guardian, praises Bertolucci for his ‘heady mixture of radical politics and eroticism’ and lists Last Tango in Paris among his ‘visually seductive masterworks’. Unfortunately, Maria Schneider is not available for comment. She died in 2011, after travails with depression, drug addiction, mental illness and suicide attempts, and after a second career advocating for women’s rights in the film business.
Schneider was adamant that becoming famous in Last Tango’s ‘butter’ scene ruined her life: ‘For Tango, I was not prepared. People have identified with a character that was not me,’ she said in 2001. ‘I started using drugs when I became famous. I did not like the celebrity, and especially the image full of innuendo, naughty, that people had of me after Last Tango.’
Brando later mumbled something about Bertolucci having wanted him and Schneider to have full intercourse on film, but that he had refused. It is hard now, when Brando is remembered only for his hammy turn in another film of that year, The Godfather, to explain just how or why he was once so famous and esteemed. The point is that he was powerful enough in the film business; his name ensured that Bertolucci could fund the film. And powerful enough to keep his shirt on because he was getting fat, and to conspire with Bertolucci against Schneider.
Bertolucci possessed a different kind of power in 1972: as nebulous as fame, but less entertaining. He passed as an intellectual radical in the western cadres of the Cultural Revolution. Luckily for dirty Bernie, sex was part of the revolutionary program in those years. In his adaptation of Moravia’s The Conformist, we learn that fascists are that way because they are gay. Even more lucky for even dirtier older Bernie, it still was in 2003 when he made The Dreamers, an extended tribute to the revolutionary potential of incest.
A.O. Scott of the New York Times, buttered up by the visuals and the ambience of sexy radicalism, found The Dreamers ‘disarmingly sweet and completely enchanting’. Eva Green, who played the mostly naked teenage girl in a love triangle with her brother and an American student, recalls it differently. She found herself unable to watch the sex scenes in the rough cut of the film. ‘It was as though I was wearing a costume while we were making the film,’ she said. ‘It was as if I had another story in my mind. So I was left speechless.’
Maria Schneider reported similar powerlessness and disassociation: ‘I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,’ she said in 2011. ‘He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me.’
Just another weekend at Bernie’s. Bertolucci was a creep and a pervert. His films may be visually arresting, but so are Leni Riefenstahl’s. The difference being that Bertolucci’s politics are still whitewashed as ‘daring’ and ‘liberating’, even after #MeToo, because Bernie was a Man of the Left, even when exploiting and conspiring to assault Women of the Left. Bertolucci’s sex scenes are a higher form of pornography, and so were his politics. He was pretentious, boring, bullying, deceitful, and up his own fundament. Too bad he didn’t stop there.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.