The Orphic Triangle

I hadn’t seen LAST TANGO IN PARIS for a long time but remembered it being interesting. Fiona hadn’t seen it in probably an even longer time and remembered it being boring. We watched it together for the first time and I was right.

But it was a really good illustration of Time’s effects: Fiona now found Brando sexy, whereas before he was just a creepy old guy. She also now found the film really funny, mostly thanks to Brando, who may be trying to take the mickey out of everything, suspecting that Bertolucci wanted to expose his raw inner being on celluloid or whatever: Brando perhaps is half-trying to make the film collapse under an attack of ridicule from within, and walk away from the rubble whistling as he had from so many other films.

He’s met his match.

Hard to imagine what this must have seemed like at the time when we were five and six years old and wouldn’t have been allowed in. Not only would the feigned sex have been startlingly graphic, considering a real movie star was involved, but the level of obscenity Brando comes up with in his improvised dialogue must’ve been an eye-opener. Fantasising about a threesome with a dying pig is… not normal. I believe even Nancy Friday would frown in consternation.

Thing is, despite the grotesque elements, this is an extraordinarily beautiful film. I don’t know if Storaro had sorted out his unique personal colour theories yet, but the variations on golden-brown he produces here are just sensational, and the combination with Gato Barbieri’s sax score is somehow just perfect. I was trying to figure out how Bertolucci came across this Argentinian jazzman whose previous movies as composer are obscure, but it’s the Pasolini connection: Barbieri is in PPP’s NOTES TOWARDS AN AFRICAN ORESTES.

But now — discovering I own a copy of David Thompson’s BFI Classic monograph on the film, I learn also that Barbieri’s wife worked on BEFORE THE REVOLUTION.

Awkward extratextual comedy as Marlon bemoans his spare tyre and his late wife’s lover show him his exercise bar. Years later, Brando would get one of those with the special boots you hang upside down from, but he was very heavy by this time and reportedly almost smothered inside himself. This goes along the story about him padlocking his fridge and then hiring the local burglar to teach him lockpicking, and the story about him making his own hypnosis tapes (“You will still be able to eat all the things you like, but you will eat less of them”) and others. There seems to be a cruel delight in Brando fat jokes, as there was with Welles, because we love to see great talents brought low… on the other hand, Brando’s fat stories are genuinely surprising and interesting.

One of the things about this film is that MB is still incredible attractive but right on the cusp of decay. And fear of aging, embodied in the film’s revulsion at the crumbly tangoists, is some kind of theme of the film, I guess. Images of death and decay. And grief. Brando’s monologue to his dead wife’s body made Dustin Hoffman run and hide behind a pillar when he saw it. I told this to Fiona but I had to repeat it like three times. Something about the anecdote appeared to be ungraspable.

Though Brando and Schneider are incredible presences and sexy people, I don’t find the sex scenes sexy, especially THAT one. Bertolucci’s betrayal of Schneider — adding the detail of the butter at the last minute to humiliate her — probably resulted in her being unwilling to trust filmmakers later on, and I don’t blame her. I think she acquired pretty good radar for when something was going to be a Bad Scene and ducking out of CALIGULA was a good call. Getting fired from THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE wasn’t necessarily a tragedy either — who wants to play an object?

What’s strange is that a distressing rape scene turned into a smutty joke for decades, and nobody used the obvious word “rape” when talking about the scene (the character’s seeming acceptance of what’s done to her obviously confused people but isn’t necessarily unrealistic — responses to sexual abuse cover a wide spectrum).

The British censor originally cut a few seconds from this scene. Bertolucci in interview smiled sweetly and said he had the feeling they did this “just to show… someone cares.”

The film’s obscenity and profanity do serve a necessary balancing function because the film might be in danger of vanishing up its own arse, without the aid of a dairy product as lubricant, if not for its sense of humour, which is mostly supplied by Brando. There’s even an Inspector Clouseau French accent joke: “Do you theenk I am a whirr?” “A what? Do I think you’re a whirr?” Another joke, cutting from the lovers groaning to a duck quacking into a rifle mic, might be one of Bert’s famous homages, to the early porno LE CANARD, but is probably just a bit of silliness. The editor is the co-writer…

Thompson’s book doesn’t offer a definitive theory of what the film really means or is about or why it exists, so why should I? But he does offer up T. Jefferson Kline’s reading of the story as a version of the Orpheus myth, though he’s a bit dismissive of the book it comes from, Bertolucci’s Dream Loom: A psychoanalytic study of cinema, which he calls “convoluted.” This idea does open up interesting possibilities, and if Paul is Orpheus (his bongos tying in with both the Greek’s lyre and Brando’s own musical proclivities) then I may have figured out why the empty apartment is on Rue Jules Verne, which has puzzled critics including Thompson. The association with science fiction, adventure, exploration and impossible voyages seems vague and unhelpful, but if the specific reference is Journey to the Centre of the Earth, then a ready connection to Orpheus in the Underworld may be drawn.

Bertolucci may have been hopelessly optimistic in assuming anyone in the audience would make this leap, but it’s better for this kind of reference to be obscure, provoking thought, rather than obvious, provoking smugness. Now excuse me while I go off and feel smug.


27 Responses to “The Orphic Triangle”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I’ve only seen Last Tango in Paris once as well. I thought like you, that it was an extraordinarily beautiful film and Brando was mesmerizing. And I think Brando really did reveal parts of himself in this movie, I think his claims later on that he took the mickey out of BB is just boastfulness. Apparently he was quite serious and disciplined on the set of Last Tango in Paris, willing to pal around with the crew, and share lunch and so on. When Brando actually did care about a movie, he was quite the opposite of his usual imperious grand diva self. And Last Tango in Paris, made right after The Godfather, was essentially the last great movie he appeared in.

    Maria Schneider’s treatment by Bertolucci during direction of that scene was terrible. She did appear in The Passenger after this, under Antonioni, but that movie didn’t take (although if you think about it, The Passenger and Last Tango in Paris, do have some similarities).

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I disagree. “Last Tango” and “The Passenger” have no similarities. Maria had a good time working on the latter and Jack enjoyed playing opposite her a great deal. Of course Jack is tons more convivial than Brando all things considered. Maria, whose father eas actor Daniel Gelin, wasn’t really an actress — except in the Warholian sense. And speaking of that she agreed to star in Rivette’s “Merry Go Round” only if Joe Dallesandro were her leading man. Having worked with Warhol and Morrissey Joe was ideal for Rivette’s semi-improvised style and he praised Joe highly. Maria by contrast wasn’t really “up to it” She kept skipping out of the shoot to the degree that Rivette had to replace her for certain scene with Hermione Karagheuz.

    Brando being “on the cusp of decay” is what makes his “Last Tango” performance so interesting. I love it because it’s 180 from “The Godfather” where he was required to turn himself into Lee J. Cobb (his old enemy from “On the Waterfront”) Bernardo shouldn’t have chickened out and had Marlon do it with a boy instead. Joe would have been perfect.

    Of his late period performances I like Marlon best in “The Freshman” especially in the scene where he’s ice skating as we here Tony Bennett sing “I Want To Be Around to Pick Up the Pieces” on the soundtrack

  3. I suppose the thematic connection between the Bert and the Ant would be they both involve the shrugging off of identity. Plus BB’s brother-in-law coming up with the story for Passenger, under the influence of Bowles and The Sheltering Sky.

    I must see The Freshman, I do find Brando very funny when the circs are right.

    Hard to assess Schneider as actress except that everything she does in Tango is compelling and convincing. She also has a great single scene in Blier’s The Actors: odd that she’d feel she could open up for him.

  4. Simon Kane Says:

    Do you not think “the distressing rape scene” was an actual rape then? I was under the impression Bertolucci decided to film an actual rape (so I’ve never seen it).

  5. Simon Kane Says:

    Again, having not seen it, I don’t know what happens. But sticking butter up someone’s arse without their consent is definitely rape. Didn’t Bertolucci admit as much. Wasn’t wanting to catch Schneider’s genuine distress the whole point? I know you’ve written about this before.

  6. Kael went into ecstacies over it. Yes, it was rape.

  7. Simon Kane Says:

    Not trying to stir. Just genuinely curious.

  8. I am certainly not condoning rape, and sexual assault but – the butter scene was simulated. The problem was Maria did not know there was going to be such a scene – it was not in the script, And on top of that, Bertolucci and Brando came up with the butter angle right then and there (there was a baguette with butter in the room), so therefore she reported she was ‘humiliated, and taken advantage of, doing a scene she wasn’t prepared for’…..I just wish the facts were reported, not that she was raped, and this mistruth keeps coming up –

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    OF COURSE IT WA SIMULATED! Jeez Louise — do you people actually believe what’s up on the screen is real? By such Standards James Cagney was an actual gangster Doris Day a virgin,

    I suspect y’all are sneakily thrilled by the idea of seeing a “real rape ” on screen and want to disavow how much it excited you.

  10. David Wingrove Says:

    Maria Schneider is also excellent in Rene Clement’s final film THE BABYSITTER. Sydne Rome is the one who steals the movie (perhaps because she looks like a film star and Schneider doesn’t) but the pair of them make a fabulous double act.

  11. Simon Kane Says:

    If she “wasn’t prepared for it” that’s not simulation. Bertolucci himself says he didn’t get Schneider’s consent. Who’s saying otherwise, David E?

  12. Gee, male cinephiles are cool with rape. SHOCKER!

  13. Simon Kane Says:

    “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.” That’s the director saying he wanted to genuinely “humiliate” a girl and record it. Maybe he’s lying, but it’s a weird thing to lie about and if you believe that’s defensible, you don’t convince by setting up straw man arguments about James Cagney.

  14. Male cinephiles insensitive to the brutalization of women, doting on the spectacle of rape?! Shocker!!!!

  15. Simon Kane Says:

    Now that’s specifically the ball I didn’t want to get rolling.

  16. The scene was in the script: a (fictional) anal rape.

    The detail of the butter was added without Schneider’s prior knowledge, but she was told about it on the day.

    My assumption is that Brando didn’t actually apply it to Schneider’s body since we aren’t shown that happening (the angle obscures things) and the whole point of hardcore is “the frenzy of the visible.”

    BUT, of course adding a detail like this at the last moment — I think Schneider was told on the day — is unfair, unprofessional and improper, exactly the reason we now have “intimacy coordinators.”

    So it’s not what the law would call rape: no penetration, only touch, with clothing between them, and both parties consented. But it’s still appalling behaviour by Bertolucci and Brando. Bertolucci was decent enough to feel guilty, and talk about that, but not decent enough to seek Schneider out and apologise.

  17. Ha! Ok, backing up, hands in the air. Simon! Write for The Chiseler!

  18. Perhaps we should simply reaffirm RS’s own response to what was done to her, and repeat: she was traumatized.

  19. I don’t know many women cinephiles who flex as they parse rape online.

  20. La Faustin Says:

    Marlon Brando was a longtime pal of Daniel Gélin’s, which probably added a touch of incest and increased betrayal to the experience for MS.

  21. I don’t think you arrive at clarity by muddying what happened. “Traumatised” is certainly fair. But when Schneider herself said “I felt humiliated and, to be honest, a little raped,” you have to assume she’s being honest, and I can’t imagine any rape victim would say they felt “a little raped.” So she’s not using the word literally. But I have no trouble accepting she was abused.

    Why parse things, why be precise? Because I don’t want it happening again. I don’t want a director to be able to say, “It wasn’t rape, we just surprised her/him with some little details that hadn’t been discussed.” No women are protected by pushing a version of events described by nobody who was there, and what happened was quite bad enough without amplifying it.

  22. She used the word “raped”. Parsing that is a matter of SELF-protection, movie fans fancying themselves judge, jury and now… The Champion of All Womankind? That’s rich. Dylan Farrow’s been looking for your protection. And she has received bupkis.

  23. Kim Novak used the word “raped” to describe how she felt about The Artist using a music cue from Vertigo.

  24. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Thank you David Cairns.

    As I have pointed out Maria Schneider was in no way shape or form a professional actress. Moreover, being a lesbian she may well have been upset by Brando’s physicality in ways she hadn’t anticipated when she agreed to do the film..

    And now EVERYBODY SING !

  25. I don’t go so far in making excuses — Bert admitted he felt guilty about springing the surprise on her, something that likely wouldn’t be tolerated today.

    I didn’t know Brando was matey with Gelin, but Schneider did say Brando was paternal to her. Other than that one scene, she liked BB and Brando — I think the way the scene was embraced by the culture as a dirty joke was damaging to her, and made the betrayal worse.

  26. John Weddell Says:

    I just wanted to say that I think this piece – and the discussion thereafter – is the best appraisal of this film that I’ve read. Thanks!

  27. Thank you, sir!

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