The discovery of an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian director of the Last Tango in Paris has ignited a debate about whether the infamous rape scene in the movie was coerced, which would put it in the territory of sexual assault, if not rape outright.
Those who believe it was not rape are pointing to the technical definition of rape as penetration, and penetration only, without consent. They say that Schneider did consent to the scene, that she was aware of what was happening, and because it was not a real rape, but only a rape scene, it cannot be classified as rape. Doing so, some argue, takes away from the pain that “real” rape victims go through.
From the accounts I have read, Bertolucci and Brando decided they would use butter as a prop in the film, and that they would portray Schneider being sodomized by Brando. They decided this between themselves, without consulting Schneider herself, without asking her whether or not she was comfortable with this plan, whether she agreed to it. They surprised her with it just moments before shooting, and it was not in the script. They did not give her the option to refuse that we know of. Neither Bertolucci nor Brando nor Schneider has said, “She didn’t have to do it if she didn’t want to.”
Legally, consent to sex cannot be implied. It has to be spelled out. And if it is coerced, then it does not count as consent at all.
As Schneider herself says, “I wish I had called a lawyer or my agent on the set because they can’t force you to do something that isn’t in the script, but I didn’t know that at the time.” Which means, by extrapolation, that she was forced. A gun was not put to her head, obviously, but she was coerced by these two men, much older and more influential than she, to agree to film this scene. We can assume that physical force was involved, especially in the moments where she struggles against Brando as he pins her down to the floor and commences his activities.
Secondly, Bertolucci admits to feeling guilty and saying he should have apologized to Schneider about the scene. He says that he did not tell her because then she would have been acting her rage and humiliation, when what he wanted was her real rage and humiliation. He did not want her as an actress but as a girl. So you can see that what he actually wanted was not a staged scenario but a very real scenario.
I do believe that is what he got. None of us were there with a microscope and a ruler to see whether Brando penetrated her body with the butter or his fingers when he put his hand between her legs. But the fact remains that Schneider was coerced into a position she didn’t want to be in. She was not given the opportunity to ask for time to consider. Brando himself said, “Come on, Maria, it’s just a movie,” showing that her concerns were brushed aside, that her feelings were not considered. She was as much a prop as that stick of butter in the movie.
You can see that Bertolucci pressured her into it. He did not offer her the possibility of a body double, or lay terms out into a contract (which is what is used these days in any film star’s contract, point by point agreeing to the scope of physical contact, nudity, etc.).
It also cannot be disproved that digital penetration did not take place (which is legally and technically rape).
Schneider said she felt “a little raped.” In all likelihood she used this phrase because she knew she had been violated, physically and emotionally, held down against her will and an object used upon her sexual parts without her full and informed consent. In 1972 she would have been struggling to find the words to describe what happened to her. The depression, drug addiction and suicide attempts she went through afterwards are typical of the post-traumatic stress disorder that she probably couldn’t find the words for.
In 2016, today, the words and phrases now exist: sexual assault, non-consensual sex — because we know better than we did in 1972, because we have evolved, and because women have stood up and demanded that they be allowed to assert that they have been violated, raped, assaulted even if it isn’t the myth of the stranger dragging them off into a dark alleyway. We also have created the terms “marital rape” and “date rape” to show that rape exists in many forms. Someone told me online that it was Orwellian to “play with words” like this, in effect creating crimes where none truly exist.
I choose to believe this is women reclaiming language, finding the power to name what they have been through, and to push through laws that create legal ramifications for these acts.
I was also told that there can be a blurry line between nonconsensual sex and rape. This is simply untrue. Rape IS nonconsensual sex. That is the legal definition of rape. It would be Orwellian to try and draw a distinction between the two.
Can we call the rape scene in The Last Tango in Paris rape, sexual assault, sexual coercion? Can we possibly draw a line between the three? Or should we admit that they can coexist in the same room, when a 19 year old woman is told by two middle-aged bastions of the film industry that this is what they’ve decided is going to happen to her, whether she likes it or not?