Academic journal article Hecate

The Potential for Excess in the Toxic Nature of Gendered Power in the Production of Cinema

Academic journal article Hecate

The Potential for Excess in the Toxic Nature of Gendered Power in the Production of Cinema

Article excerpt

Bernardo Bertolucci's standing as an auteur has been part of the canon. In cinema studies literature, Last Tango in Paris is regarded as "among the best films of its time" (Lapin 22). In 1971, the then eighteen year old, Maria Schneider was approached to star in the film opposite the already legendary Marlon Brando (then forty-two year old) to be directed by one of the luminaries of European cinema. Schneider was interviewed many times after the film's release, and repeatedly made the claim that the anal rape scene was real to her, and that she had felt humiliated by both Brando and Bertolucci's treatment of her afterwards. This article revisits the film, its reception at the time, and its reception after the 2016 revelations by Bertolucci that Schneider's claims were true. Prior to the 1970s work of feminist film scholar, Laura Mulvey, the "gaze" in cinema was assumed to be a universal, non-gendered gaze. Mulvey's contribution was to gender the gaze, and theorise it as "the male gaze." She then argued that it is this "gaze" in cinema that is exploited by male directors, and that they utilise the camera as a second layer of gendered power. This was especially so for the director of arthouse films in the 1970s.


What follows is an initially personal reflection occasioned by the resurfacing of the scandal around the anal rape scene from Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972). The revelations of the intentionality of the scene on an unwitting and unwilling victim led to me to condemn the violation of the actor, Maria Schneider, and to link this violation with a critique of the gendered power relations of this film. The outrage I felt led me to think through my position as a lifelong feminist and its convergence with my role as a filmmaker. As a feminist I was deeply disturbed and depressed. Yet as a filmmaker I was expected to pay homage to one of the most celebrated figures in contemporary cinema. The catalyst for this dissonance was my response to the call for papers for a conference at The University of Queensland on "Excess and Desire." Reflecting on the theme of the conference enabled me to look further into early responses to the film in addition to the director's recent revelations about its production. I argue that there is a moment of contiguity between the way in which Schneider was treated and the ongoing, gendered power in the production of cinema. Through this analysis I seek a framework for discussing Last Tango in Paris that allows for a sense of empowerment rather than debilitation and rejection.


Schneider, the unwilling participant of the infamous anal rape scene in Last Tango in Paris, has described its impact on her on a number of occasions, most recently in 2007 (she died in 2011 from cancer) when she stated again that the scene "wasn't in the original script." She added in that interview: "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" (qtd. in Fonseca np). Schneider was 19 years old when the scene was filmed, and was working with two men at the peak of their professional careers: Bertolucci was an internationally acclaimed director, while the film's star, Marlon Brando, was to receive Best Actor awards from the New York Film Critics Circle (1973) and the National Society of Film Critics (1974). Both Bertolucci and Brando went on to receive Oscar nominations for their parts in the film (Murphy np).

Contemporaneous critical reception of the film

In his New York Times review of the film, Vincent Canby endeavoured to capture the intensity of its impact, as well the "embarrassment" (np) he experienced as he was watching it. His feelings of ambiguity about the film reflect something of the controversy that the film occasioned on its release. Sasha Richman has also shown that although on its release the film received both criticism and praise, its reception was influenced by the critic Pauline Kael. …

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