Last Tango in Paris


Last Tango in Paris (Italian: ‘Ultimo Tango a Parigi’) is a 1972 Italian romantic drama film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci which portrays a recent American widower who takes up an anonymous sexual relationship with a young, soon-to-be-married Parisian woman. It stars Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, and Jean-Pierre Léaud. The film’s raw portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil led to international controversy and drew various levels of government censorship. The MPAA gave the film an X rating upon release in the United States. After revisions were made to the MPAA ratings code, it was classified as an NC-17 in 1997.

The idea grew from Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexual fantasies, stating ‘he once dreamed of seeing a beautiful nameless woman on the street and having sex with her without ever knowing who she was.’

As with previous films, Marlon Brando refused to memorize his lines for many scenes. Instead, he wrote his lines on cue cards and posted them around the set for easy reference, leaving Bertolucci with the problem of keeping them out of the picture frame. During his long monologue over the body of his wife, for example, Brando’s dramatic lifting of his eyes upward is not spontaneous dramatic acting but a search for his next cue. Brando even asked Bertolucci if he could ‘write lines on Maria’s rear end,’ which he refused to allow.

Maria Schneider provided frank interviews in the wake of Tango’s controversy, claiming she had slept with fifty men and twenty women, that she was ‘bisexual completely,’ and that she was a user of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. She also said of Bertolucci, ‘He’s quite clever and more free and very young. Everybody was digging what he was doing, and we were all very close.’

During the publicity for the film’s release, Bertolucci said that Schneider developed an ‘Oedipal fixation with Brando.’ Schneider herself said that Brando sent her flowers after they first met, and ‘from then on he was like a daddy.’ In a contemporaneous interview, Schneider denied this, saying, ‘Brando tried to be very paternalistic with me, but it really wasn’t any father-daughter relationship.’ Years later, however, Schneider recounted feelings of sexual humiliation:

‘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. Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.’

Schneider subsequently stated that making the film was her life’s only regret, that it ‘ruined her life,’ and that she considers Bertolucci a ‘gangster and a pimp.’ In 2011, Bertolucci disavowed that he had ‘stole[n] her youth,’ and commented, ‘The girl wasn’t mature enough to understand what was going on.’

Much like Schneider, Brando ‘felt raped and manipulated’ by the film, telling Bertolucci, ‘I was completely and utterly violated by you. I will never make another film like that.’ Brando refused to speak to Bertolucci for fifteen years after wrapping production. Bertolucci also shot a scene which shows Brando’s genitals, but later explained, ‘I had so identified myself with Brando that I cut it out of shame for myself. To show him naked would have been like showing me naked.’

The film’s scandal centered mostly on an anal sex scene featuring the use of butter as a lubricant. Other critics focused on when he asks her to insert her fingers in his anus, then exacts a vow from her that she would prove her devotion to him by, among other things, having sex with a pig. Vincent Canby of ‘The New York Times’ described the film’s sexual content as the artistic expression of the ‘era of Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer.’


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