Enough Already About the Butter: Last Tango in Paris’s Feminist Message

A photo of a man and a woman dancing the tango, locked in a passionate embrace.
Two dancers perform at a tango festival in Uberlândia, Brazil, in 2011 (Cecilia Heinen via Flickr)
NPR's Fresh Air fired film critic David Edelstein over a tasteless quip about Last Tango in Paris. But the haters have the infamous "butter scene" — and the film — all wrong.

Lost in the recent outrage over film critic David Edelstein’s off-color Facebook comment about the infamous “butter scene” in Last Tango in Paris is one salient fact: By any measure, the late Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 succès de scandale conveys a powerful feminist message.

Far from the glorification of rape that its detractors claim it to be, Last Tango in Paris stands as a rejection of almost all bourgeois mores of the time, including the institution of marriage, patriarchal society, materialism, and male chauvinism.

Actress Maria Schneider’s character, Jeanne, emerges triumphant at the end of the film, killing Marlon Brando’s self-obsessed protagonist, Paul — the typical “American in Paris” who betrays his own radical vision of an existential romance, one divorced from the traditional tropes of male-female relations.

But much in the same way the Twitter mob misread Edelstein’s puerile stab at humor — made in response to news of Bertolucci’s death on November 26, 2018 — it mischaracterized the film as a product of male dominance and sexual assault, perceiving a revolutionary work of art through the blinders of the #MeToo movement.

Photo of Bernardo Bertolucci, seated in a wheelchair, talking to another man seated in a chair.
Bernardo Bertolucci (left), discusses his work after receiving an honorary degree from the University of Parma, Italy, in 2014 (Città di Parma via Flickr)

Edelstein’s post was in poor taste, but it was tame by comparison to most internet content: He uploaded an image from the film, depicting Marlon Brando’s middle-aged widower applying butter to the backside of his twentysomething lover in preparation for anal sex.

“Even grief goes better with butter,” Edelstein wrote.

That throwaway eulogy caught so much flak that even deleting the post and apologizing wasn’t enough to deter NPR’s Fresh Air from canning Edelstein. In the view of the outraged, Edelstein had joked about rape — or about a scene in which two actors depict a rape, or about an actual rape, or about some other type of sexual assault.

But in reality, it was none of those things. According to the accounts of all who were present, that fateful scene in Last Tango in Paris involved no sex, let alone rape.

The confusion stems from a 2007 Daily Mail interview in which Schneider, then 55 years old, claimed the scene hadn’t been in the original script, and that Bertolucci and Brando had sprung it on her at the last minute.

High-contrast photo of fashion designer Lloyd Klein and actress Maria Schneider.
Maria Schneider photographed backstage with designer Lloyd Klein during New York Fashion Week in November of 2004 (Lloyd Klein via Flickr)

“They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry,” Schneider 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.”

She went on to say she felt “humiliated” and “a little raped” by Brando and Bertolucci, and that “even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.”

As Katie Herzog, a columnist for the Seattle weekly The Stranger, explained in her analysis of the Edelstein affair, the butter scene in Last Tango had been “inflated to an actual sexual assault through the internet grapevine.” As a result, Herzog writes, “[I]t looked like Edelstein was making a Literal Rape joke.”

But there was no copulation — neither forced nor unforced — notwithstanding the denunciations of Edelstein from the likes of actress Martha Plimpton, who inaccurately tweeted that Last Tango‘s sodomy scene was “this moment in which a sexual assault of an actress was intentionally captured on film.”

Plimpton concluded her tweet with a demand that Edelstein pay for his offense with his job, declaring, “Fire him. Immediately.”

Plimpton recently deactivated her Twitter account without explanation.

In a 2013 interview on Dutch television, Bertolucci addressed the reignited controversy over the scene. He acknowledged that at the time he kept one crucial detail from Schneider: the use of butter as a sexual lubricant.

“It was in the script that he had to rape her in a way,” Bertolucci explains during the interview. “And we were having with Marlon breakfast on the floor of the flat where we were shooting. And there was a baguette and there was butter, and we looked at each other and without saying anything, we knew what we wanted. But I’ve been, in a way, horrible to Maria, because I didn’t tell her what was going on because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated; if it goes on, she shouts, ‘No, no!’ And I think that she hated me, and also Marlon, because we didn’t tell her, and there was that detail of the butter used as a lubricant, and I still feel very guilty for that.”

And yet, Bertolucci said he did not regret what he had done, explaining that in filmmaking, “To obtain something, I think you have to be completely free.”

He added, “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation.”

The clip caused widespread furor when the Spanish nonprofit El Mundo de Alycia republished it three years later, on November 25, 2016, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Many of those who criticized Bertolucci online seemed to think the director had admitted Schneider didn’t know the scene was to include anal sex. Others conflated the acted scene with an actual sexual assault, much in the way Plimpton would do two years later.

Bertolucci responded to the 2016 outrage with a statement reiterating that the scene was in the script, minus the specification of a dairy product.

“Somebody thought, and thinks that Maria had not been informed about the violence on her,” he said. “That is false! Maria knew everything because she had read the script, where it was all described. The only novelty was the idea of the butter.”

Bertolucci’s apology, in which he admitted to having intentionally “humiliated” his leading actress, only stoked the fire of controversy further.

There’s no denying Bertolucci subjected his actors to emotional and physical manipulation while making Last Tango. In Brando’s 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, the actor described how Bertolucci wanted Schneider and Brando to have intercourse for the camera.

Martha Plimpton's Twitter attack on David Edelstein.
(screenshot via Twitter cache)

Brando said he refused because that would have made “our sex organs the focus of the story.” Instead, the two of them engaged in “ersatz sex,” he wrote. Brando also claimed that the experience of making the film humiliated him. He described how his attempt to give Bertolucci the full-frontal nude scene the director wanted was foiled by a day so cold that “my penis shrank to the size of a peanut.”

Famed for his adherence to natural acting, Brando wrote some of his own dialogue for Last Tango and incorporated elements of his own life into the character of Paul. The film required a lot of “emotional arm-wrestling with himself,” he wrote, including forcing himself to experience Paul’s suffering because of the suicide of the character’s wife. He declared that he would never again “destroy myself emotionally to make a movie.”

Schneider, too, was haunted by the role. Though she would appear in more than 50 films and TV shows (mostly French) before she died of cancer in 2011, it was Last Tango that made her an international star. Though Schneider hated Bertolucci for the deception involved in the scene, she praised Brando as an actor and a person on many occasions during her life.

In the Daily Mail interview, Schneider also complained that while Brando was paid $250,000 (plus 10 percent of the gross after $3 million in ticket sales), she received only $4,000.

Schneider had been enthusiastic about the film in 1973, when she told the New York Times, “It is a film about loneliness and anguish more than it is about sex. It is not a blue movie. A lot of dirty old men went to see it in Paris and they were disappointed.”

But the sentiments she expressed during that early interview may have been misleading. She’d later tell the Daily Mail that she’d been less than truthful with the press after the film’s release, when she found that people were mistaking her for the role she played in the film — a frightening scenario.

“I felt very sad, because I was treated like a sex symbol,” she explained. “I wanted to be recognized as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown. Now, though, I can look at the film and like my work in it.”

Schneider’s mixed emotions are understandable, especially in Last Tango’s cultural context. No motion-picture star has been so closely identified with an anal-sex scene, with the possible exception of Ned Beatty, who had to endure decades of ribbing for the male-on-male rape his character Bobby Trippe endured in the 1972 film adaption of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance — a scene in which Trippe’s redneck assailant demands that he “squeal like a pig.”

Last Tango‘s sodomy scene — which caused the film to be banned and denounced in Argentina, Italy, and elsewhere — was not ancillary to the plot. It was a crucial device, symbolic of the two main characters’ taboo-shattering affair.

The storyline is relatively simple: Paul and Jeanne meet in an apartment for rent in Paris. They make love without knowing anything about one another and continue to meet at the flat for trysts in an attempt to achieve a completely anonymous relationship. Paul sets the rules: No names will be revealed. They will create a reality in that apartment onto which the outside world will not intrude.

Paul, who has just lost his wife, is openly hostile to what he sees as the hypocrisy that civilization imposes on individuals. During the controversial “butter scene,” he forces Jeanne to repeat a bizarre indictment of humanity.

“Holy family, church of good citizens…. The children are tortured until they tell their first lie…. Where the will is broken by repression…. Where freedom is assassinated….”

The violation of the taboo against anal sex occurs as Paul curses the verities of church and family, commanding Jeanne to curse them, too. Jeanne does not abandon Paul after the sodomy; she remains his lover. Later, at Paul’s request, she penetrates Paul’s anus with her fingers, as Paul runs down a litany of grotesque acts he wants her to perform in the name of love, including having sex with a pig. Jeanne agrees to them all.

At the end of the film, Paul betrays his own code, accosting Jeanne in the street and running after her in a futile stab at a traditional relationship. At her apartment, he dons a kepi that belonged to her long-dead father (a soldier) and asks her to tell him her name. As she says, “Jeanne,” she fatally shoots him. He staggers to the balcony, where he crumples into a fetal position.

All of Paul’s Hemingwayesque posturing, his supposed defiance of society’s norms, his existential declarations, are shown to be false. Instead of the literary antihero he portrays himself to be, he is just another lonely, heterosexual human, with the usual need for love and affection within the confines of a conventional male-female relationship.

Paul’s masculine need to dominate is a façade. Behind it is a frightened, aging man. In one memorable scene, Paul offers Jeanne his axiom for existence, one he cannot live up to:

“No, you’re alone. You’re all alone. And you won’t be able to be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. I mean that sounds like bullshit. Some romantic crap. Until you go right up into the ass of death. Right up in his ass. Till you find the womb of fear.”

Paul gazes into the “ass of death” — and blinks. And like an avenging angel, Jeanne renders judgment. Not that Bertolucci lets her off the hook. She will cover her tracks by claiming that Paul is a stranger who tried to rape her. And she seems destined to retreat into a traditional marriage with her insipid fiancé, played by French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud.

As film critic Pauline Kael noted in The New Yorker after Last Tango’s international debut, it is the “soft, pliable” Jeanne who “must be the winner” in this battle of the sexes. Brando’s Paul, the “naive outsider, the romantic,” doesn’t stand a chance against a headstrong “French bourgeois girl.”

Kael called Last Tango in Paris “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.” One wonders what Kael, who died in 2001, would think of the recent controversy over the film she lionized in 1972.

For Further Reading:
“Free Speech in the News: The Top Ten Stories of 2018”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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