Bernardo Bertolucci, who died Nov. 26 at the age of 77, was a problematic movie maker. There’s a lot right with nearly every one of his films. But there’s also always something wrong. There’s no denying the beauty of the purple twilight skies juxtaposed against the moon, street lamps, and cityscapes that recur throughout his films. Every film of his, for that matter, has something gorgeous to look at. The world is simply a more beautiful place in Bertolucci movies. And then he goes and spoils all that somehow. Every time, and usually with sex.
Luna explores incest, Last Tango in Paris deals with rape, despair, and power. In Stealing Beauty, Liv Tyler’s virginity is up for grabs. The Last Emperor has a child leaving his wet nurse for his empress and consort in a preteen menage a trois bubble wrapped in historical authenticity.
There is one notable exception: The Conformist. His most stylized and captivating film, it refuses to unfold in formulaic fashion. Its flashbacks and anachronistic time-shifting make for a simmering noir nail-biter. And the sexuality is less overt—and a little less twisted—than in Bertolucci’s later films, even though it plays a preternatural part in title character Marcello Clerici’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) preoccupations and confusion in his desire to be a normal man, as well as a somewhat freewheeling, wannabe fascist (the story is set in '30s and '40s Italy, so normal and fascist are not antithetical).
Clerici’s rigidity in his embrace of fascism is at odds with his sexual fluidity. When forced to confess his sins to a priest prior to his marriage, he starkly explains the murder he committed as a boy in response to a homosexual encounter with Lino, a chauffeur who pulls him out of a scuffle with other children and draws him into his bedroom with the promise of a gun.
But while Clerici is confessing to murder, the priest is preoccupied with details of the homosexual encounter. “It’s almost as though you think sodomy is a more mortal sin than killing somebody,” Clerici says—weirdly, by the end of the movie, he will think so too. But while he’s confessing to the priest, his sense of guilt is only about the murder. Clerici knows at 13 that he is capable of killing. He confesses that his other sexual relationships—one prostitute and several other women—were “normal.” The priest tells Clerici that his sex life, regardless of with whom, is not normal outside of marriage. Clerici contemptuously responds that he is going to build a normal life outside religion. He will marry a mediocre woman of petty ideas, full of petty ambitions and prejudices. “Yes, she’s all bed and kitchen.”
Joining the Fascist police and marrying are the two ways Clerici feels able to be “excused by society” and to become part of it, to atone for the messiness in his life, very little of which is actually his doing. His mother is a morphine addict who has sex with her much younger dealer and stays high in Clerici’s dilapidated childhood home. His father is in an asylum with severe mental illness due to syphilis. To rationalize all of this, he falls in line and rejects his personal freedom in order to conform to what his idea of the norm is. But he’s terrible at it. When he finds out about a six-year relationship his fiance had with a man over 40 years her senior who she called “Uncle” he’s jealous, human, but as she describes the specifics and the feelings, Clerici touches her according to her memory.
While he and his wife honeymoon in Paris, Clerici begins an affair with the cool wife of the man he’s been sent there to kill—his old anti-fascist professor now living in exile in France. The wives engage in a sexual flirtation. The waters get further muddied as the couples eat together. Clerici, the fascist, isn’t taken seriously by his intended target. There’s more mystery than resolve in his character. The weight of the gun he carries is too much and he second-guesses his mission. The sex in this movie is mostly about how close everybody gets to having it. Yet nobody does. Both the mission and the sex are almosts, but death feels certain all the same. Even the azure sky is building to something. It envelopes the characters as they walk outside past bright interiors, and it hangs behind the windows when they’re inside. Evening encroaches like another, somehow sinister character in many scenes. When, about an hour and a half into the movie, Clerici smiles and laughs for the first time, even the joy he feels as a human is ominous.
The Conformist is just as transgressive as Bertolucci’s later films, but the scenes aren’t explicit, and the characters are far more developed and nuanced in ways that allow the viewer to turn inward rather than look at an impulsive act that is more fantasy-driven, which is why Last Tango in Paris is such a departure—the sex in this movie is immediate and urgent.
Different though they are, these two films typify the Bertolucci look. Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer, began working with Bertolucci on The Conformist, and thereafter the two partnered throughout their careers to create a signature style that uses color to psychologically influence audiences.
Last Tango in Paris is a beautifully shot movie that if boiled down to its essence tells a pretty creepy story: A young girl (she’s engaged, which I guess is supposed to tell us she’s legal) is abused by a 45-year-old man.
The first scene—like so many scenes in so many Bertolucci movies—is beautiful, though. It’s shot at that time of day when the sun has set but there’s enough light left in the sky to cast everything in silhouette. An elevated train passes across the evening sky, and the lights within the train bathe the interior an incandescent yellow.
Paul and Jeanne, played by Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, are apartment hunting and both have their eye on the same place. When Jeanne lets herself in to check the place out, Paul is already there. A recent widower, he’s maudlin. His wife killed herself. The apartment is all shadows, and the orange glow of Paris shimmers against the purple dusk. The two meet in the apartment and exchange some words, but there’s no tension or chemistry felt. As they survey the place separately, there is chit chat, but Paul retreats into the shadows. Both of them squat—Paul in a dark corner of the living room and Jeanne on the toilet to pee. Then the phone rings, and they answer on different extensions. Paul tells the caller that nobody is there. Jeanne still has the phone to her ear as Paul appears. And then they fuck, but it’s not beautiful, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason to do it again.
Paul rents the apartment, and there, in a sparsely furnished space, Jeanne shows up to return the spare key, and their sexual relationship begins in earnest. Can’t call it a romance, or a love affair. Neither participant offers a name. It’s the anonymous collision of two strangers embarked on a brief, sometimes tender, mostly physical relationship that any fool can see has doom written all over it from the very first.
Jeanne is the film’s most sympathetic character at the outset, but Paul becomes increasingly so, as he processes through the suicide of his wife. She falls in love with him, and when she professes her love, he tests it by having her digitally manipulate him. Honestly, as vulgar as the film is, Marlon Brando is amazing. He’s angry, funny, humiliated, tearful, and he loves his dead wife so much that loving anybody else is unrealistic, because the existential crisis is… everybody is alone, in and out of marriage. He leaves, and then returns, because he loves Jeanne, but by then she doesn’t feel the attachment. The spell is broken. Yet he persists, thinking she’s impetuous and in love with the tempestuousness of their relationship, but she’s done. He chases after her, into the street, and catches up and says he loves her and wants to know her name. She shoots him. Shocked, she mumbles, “I don’t know his name. I don’t know who he is. He tried to rape me. I don’t know.”
Sweet post-coital pillow talk between the two on a bare mattress in Paul’s new apartment is sexy, but I first saw the movie as a teen and what I remember are Maria Scheider’s tits as her character recalls the times she and her cousin pleasured themselves next to each other in a race to climax. When I initially watched her reenact her experience with her cousin while Paul watched, it was hot, but I was only watching Maria Schneider, so I wasn’t aware that her pillow talk was fodder for a horny, nearly invisible middle-aged man. Seeing it now feels icky.
In Bertolucci’s films, it’s never just two people having sex. There’s always something fucked up. In Last Tango in Paris, it’s rape and physical and emotional coercion from a man in such despair that he presses for sex that teeters on the precipice of consensual, until it isn’t. When they are together, Paul is always clothed while Jeanne is topless or naked. What the audience sees is a gorgeous, naked French woman standing in relief, so completely eclipsing her clothed middle-aged partner and their shared surroundings that she becomes the only element. It’s her body, her stories, her accent that compel the audience. Everything else is in shadow. Nothing else matters.
And then there’s the anal rape scene, which, come to find out, went wildly off-script when Bertolucci and Brando decided to use butter for lube in the anal scene but never informed Maria Schneider before shooting, so her reaction would be real and true--a fact that she said made her feel raped by both Bertolucci and Brando.
In 2013, Bertolucci admitted he never told Schneider about the butter beforehand. “The scene of the butter,” he said, “it’s an idea I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting it. But I had 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 as she felt humiliated. She shouts, ‘No! No!’ I think she hated me, and also Marlon, because we didn’t tell her that there was that detail of the butter used as a lubricant. I feel very guilty for that.”
But while he copped to guilt, he said he had no regrets: “You know, to make movies sometimes, to obtain something, I think that we have to be completely free. I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel, not to act. Then she hated me for all her life. ”
Feeling completely free to make Maria Schneider to feel her humiliation and rage, not to act it, and to strip her of any choice in the matter is rape, not freedom. He took liberties and took her freedom in that decision. Did he have so little faith in her acting ability that he felt compelled to ambush her? Two people knowing what she didn’t is a conspiracy. Bertolucci went on to make movies backed by major studios with huge names attached. Maria became drug-addicted and later advocated for women in cinema. She died in 2011. But this isn’t about her. Except it has to be, because what he did with that scene means that no one will ever tell Bertolucci’s story without telling hers as well.