The dark story behind Last Tango in Paris’ most infamous scene

Brando and Schneider in ‘Last Tango in Paris’  (Keystone/Getty Images)
Brando and Schneider in ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (Keystone/Getty Images)

Last Tango in Paris is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The controversial film has been criticised in recent years, following shock revelations about its most infamous scene.

Released in the US on 1 February 1973, Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic drama follows a young woman from Paris (the late Maria Schneider), who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with an older American widower (Marlon Brando).

In one shocking scene, Paul rapes Jeanne, using a stick of butter as a lubricant.

Schneider, who was just 19 when she shot the film opposite 48-year-old Brando, said in a 2007 interview that the scene “wasn’t in the original script”, but that Brando had come up with the idea to simulate it and told her right before they had to film that part.

“I was so angry,” she said. “Marlon said to me, ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.

“I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.”

In retrospect, Schneider said, she should have called her agent or lawyer “because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that”.

In 2016, a clip re-emerged on social media from a 2013 press tour interview with Bertolucci, in which he discussed shooting the scene.

The Italian director described how he and Brando had come up with the idea to use the butter in the scripted rape scene, but did not tell Schneider “what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress”. “I wanted her to react humiliated,” he said.

The rape scene is one of the most infamous in film history (Keystone/Getty Images)
The rape scene is one of the most infamous in film history (Keystone/Getty Images)

The comment prompted outcry throughout Hollywood, with Ava DuVernay commenting: “Inexcusable. As a director, I can barely fathom this. As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.”

“Wow. I will never look at this film, Bertolucci or Brando the same way again,” Chris Evans tweeted. “This is beyond disgusting. I feel rage.”

After the clip was circulated and a number of newspapers reported that Schneider had been raped on set, Bertolucci released a statement clarifying that it was a simulated sex scene.

“Somebody thought, and thinks, that Maria had not been informed about the violence on her. That is false,” he claimed. “Maria knew everything because she had read the script, where it was all described. The only novelty was the idea of the butter.”

Schneider died in 2011, while Bertolucci died in 2018.

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, you can contact your nearest Rape Crisis organisation for specialist, independent and confidential support. For more information, visit their website here.