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The disturbing story behind the rape scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, explained

The scene made actress Maria Schneider feel “humiliated.” It has to be part of Bertolucci’s legacy.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci (left) with actors Maria Schneider (right) and Marlon Brando (center) during the filming of Last Tango in Paris
Director Bernardo Bertolucci (left) with actors Maria Schneider (right) and Marlon Brando (center) during the filming of Last Tango in Paris.
Corbis/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Bernardo Bertolucci, who died on Monday at the age of 77, has received widespread acclaim for his decades of filmmaking, winning Oscars, Golden Globes, and the first-ever Honorary Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.

But one part of his career has been the subject of increasing scrutiny in recent years: a rape scene in Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. Marlon Brando’s character, Paul, rapes actress Maria Schneider’s character, Jeanne, using a stick of butter as lubricant. In a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail, Schneider said the scene wasn’t in the original script, and that Brando and Bertolucci had told her about it just before they began filming.

The scene is intended to be violent and disturbing, with Paul hitting Jeanne and penetrating her as she cries. But as Schneider made clear, the feelings of violation we see onscreen aren’t just acting — they’re real.

“I was so angry,” she said. “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”

The scene became the target of renewed scrutiny beginning in 2016, when a 2013 video clip in which Bertolucci discussed the film went viral. The director acknowledged that he’d sprung the butter detail on Schneider at the last minute, because he wanted her onscreen humiliation and rage to be real. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act,” he said.

Brando didn’t actually penetrate Schneider in the scene. But it was an incident of real sexual humiliation nonetheless, by all accounts. And in a time of reckoning around sexual misconduct, misogyny, and abuse of power in Hollywood, it deserves to be remembered as part of his legacy.

Bertolucci argued that it was necessary to humiliate Schneider in order to make his film. But that argument reveals a fundamental inequity that the #MeToo movement is only beginning to expose: In Hollywood, some people, most of them men, have the power to decide what makes great art — and who deserves to get hurt in order to create it.

Maria Schneider spoke publicly about the scene in 2007

Last Tango in Paris tells the story of an affair between an older widower and a young woman, who meet when they both view an apartment for rent in Paris. Brando was 48 when the film was made, Bertolucci was in his early thirties, and Schneider was 19.

The infamous scene occurs about halfway through the film. Paul and Jeanne are already lovers, but Paul is increasingly brutal, both psychologically and physically. One day, when Jeanne arrives at the apartment, he tells her to bring him a stick of butter from the kitchen. Then he uses it as lubrication as he anally rapes her, leaving her weeping.

“That scene wasn’t in the original script,” Schneider told the Daily Mail. “The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea.”

“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,” she added.

Schneider said that Brando did not apologize to her after the scene, but that they had a close relationship in general and remained friends after shooting was finished. The actress also said she felt manipulated by Bertolucci throughout the filming of Last Tango, and that the public reaction to the film — which earned both acclaim and criticism for its explicit sexual content — sent her into a tailspin.

“People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn’t me,” she explained. “I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol — I wanted to be recognized as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.”

She added that she abused drugs and attempted suicide, but eventually got clean in 1980 after meeting her long-term partner, whom she did not name. Schneider died of cancer in 2011.

The scene got more attention in 2016

During a 2013 master class at the Cinemathèque Francaise, a film archive in Paris, Bertolucci explained how the scene came to be.

“It was in the script that he had to rape her in a way,” the director said. “And we were having with Marlon breakfast on the floor of the flat where we were shooting. And there was a baguette and there was butter, and we looked at each other and without saying anything, we knew what we wanted.”

Bertolucci acknowledged that he hadn’t told Schneider about the butter beforehand. “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress,” he said. “I wanted her to react humiliated.”

The director said he felt guilty for the way he had treated Schneider, but did not regret it. As a filmmaker, he said, “you have to be completely free.”

The master class wasn’t Bertolucci’s only public discussion of the scene. The director gave a similar account to the Guardian in a 2013 interview promoting his film Me and You. This time, he seemed to give her age and inexperience as justification.

“She was a 19-year-old who, like the actors in Me and You, had never acted before,” he said. “Maybe, sometimes in the movie, I didn’t tell her what was going on because I knew her acting would be better.”

But according to the Washington Post, the backstory behind the butter scene gained international attention in 2016, when the Spanish nonprofit El Mundo de Alycia posted a clip of the 2013 class on its website in honor of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

“With this video and to mark the day against gender violence,” the nonprofit stated in an accompanying article, “we intend to make known the abuses that many young actresses suffer from some directors and actors, protected by fame.”

The video went viral, inspiring coverage by publications around the world and condemnation from actors and directors like Ava DuVernay, Chris Evans, and Anna Kendrick.

Meanwhile, The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz argued that the furor around the footage — and publications’ desire to capitalize on its shock value — led to the widespread misconception that Last Tango in Paris depicts an actual rape onscreen. In fact, according to the Post, both Brando and Schneider have said the film’s scenes of intercourse were simulated.

It’s not entirely clear what Schneider was prepared for in advance of the scene. In a statement issued in 2016, after the 2013 clip went viral, Bertolucci maintained that she was fully aware that the scene involved rape. “The only novelty was the idea of the butter,” he said.

But both agree that this crucial detail was intentionally withheld from her. And what happened on the set of Last Tango was, in both Bertolucci’s and Schneider’s telling, a violation: two older and more powerful men conspiring to humiliate a young woman for the sake of a more convincing performance.

Bertolucci’s treatment of Schneider is a reminder of the power imbalances in Hollywood

As the Post’s Elahe Izadi notes, the rediscovery of the Bertolucci clip came at a time when Bill Cosby was facing sexual assault charges and the treatment of women in Hollywood was receiving increased scrutiny. Now Cosby is in prison, and the #MeToo movement has prompted an even greater reexamination of the abuses faced by women in the movie industry.

Unlike many of the women who have spoken out as part of #MeToo, Schneider wasn’t pressured to have sex to advance her career. But she was subjected to a humiliating sexual situation at work, one she never agreed to. Still in her teens, she didn’t realize she could say no. And the scene that resulted from her humiliation, along with the film’s other sex scenes, came to define her against her will, causing her lasting psychological trauma.

It may not have been literal rape, but seen from this vantage point, the scene was undeniably abusive — a fact that Bertolucci seemed to acknowledge. “I’ve been, in a way, horrible to Maria,” he said in the 2013 masterclass.

The #MeToo movement has prompted a reconsideration, not just of gender and power in Hollywood and other industries, but of the question of whether it’s possible to separate a work of art from its creator. In the case of Last Tango in Paris, the answer is a fairly clear no.

Bertolucci and Brando’s violation of Schneider wasn’t incidental to the making of the film. Rather, they manipulated her specifically to get the artistic result they wanted. And Bertolucci would later argue that, at least for him, that result trumped everything else: “You have to be completely free.”

When his 2013 comments went viral, some argued that Last Tango in Paris should be boycotted, or even destroyed. The question of what to do with films made by people guilty of sexual harassment or assault remains a morally complex one, perhaps doubly so in the case of Last Tango in Paris, a film in which the emotional impact of a pivotal scene stemmed from the willful sexual humiliation of one of its stars.

But whatever decision individual viewers make about the film, perhaps a fitting tribute to Schneider is to consider it, and Bertolucci’s larger legacy, in the context of her remarks about its making and his defense. In 1972, at least, Bertolucci was a director who needed to feel free to create his art, and who was willing to violate a young woman for the sake of that feeling. Their accounts of the event are strikingly similar — which isn’t often the case when it comes to sexual misconduct — and thus they are as clear an illustration as any of the fact that in Hollywood, as in the wider world, some people have always been freer than others.