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


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. Indeed, her review was incorporated in the film's publicity campaign. Kael wrote:

This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made, and so it's probably only natural that an audience, anticipating a voluptuous feast from the man who made The Conformist, and confronted with this unexpected sexuality and the new realism it requires of the actors, should go into shock. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that? (np)

Kael was not alone in enshrining the film as an instant classic: the respected film critic, Roger Ebert claimed that to view Bertolucci's film was to have "one of the great emotional experiences of our time" (np). In a like vein, Joan Mellon saw the film as emancipatory in that its fundamental premise was "an indictment of the bourgeois family which dominates culture and society, suppresses feeling and 'civilises' the 'savage' in us all by repressing bodily needs" (10).

The scandal in context

In a 2013 press tour, Bertolucci described how he and Brando had come up with the idea to use butter in the scene:

It was in the script that he had to rape her in a way. …

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