In the past week a clip of director Bernardo Bertolucci speaking about a scene in the 1972 film The Last Tango in Paris set off a firestorm of controversy on Twitter. The film tells the story of a recently widowed American man’s sordid sexual affair with a French woman. In the particular scene, the character Jeanne, played by 19-year-old Maria Schneider, is raped by the character Paul, played by 48-year-old Marlon Brando.
Bertolucci confesses that he did not tell Schneider in advance of the scene’s shooting that it would involve a feigned rape with her as the victim. His rationale was that he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” Although Schneider revealed the deception in 2007, the recent release of the Bertolucci clip caused a stir:
According to his confession, Bertolucci “wanted her [Schneider] to react humiliated.” His gambit worked. Schneider responded authentically, exactly as a rape victim would. The scene was so realistic that several governments and trade associations, including the Motion Picture Association of America, censored it prior to the film’s distribution.
Bertolucci recently back-tracked, claiming that what he did not tell Schneider was only that a certain prop (butter) would be used in the scene. In the clip, though, he specifically states that the rape scene was “non-consensual” for Schneider.
Before her death in 2011, Schneider told the Daily Mail that, “I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” While the scene did not involve Brando actually having sex with Schneider, what makes the scene non-consensual is that Schneider was not informed beforehand that there would be feigned sexual violence.
What was so wrong about Bertolucci’s gambit? It was not, as Chastain’s tweet suggests, the age difference between the actors. It was the absence of informed consent. Unlike other forms of improv (such as Jack Nicholson pulling a real gun on Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Departed’), keeping the actor in the dark caused serious psychological distress.
What is informed consent? Letting people know in advance what the likely outcome of a course of action will be and then gaining their agreement prior to moving forward with it. Informed consent protects a person’s autonomy or freedom to choose. Informed consent is, in other words, a basic requirement for exercising moral agency.
According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, humans are owed a duty to be treated as ends-in-themselves, that is, as rational moral agents capable of freely choosing how to act consistent with their own purposes. Deceiving someone denies them that freedom, treating them instead as a tool to be manipulated for others’ purposes.
Clearly, Bertolucci deceived Schneider, thereby violating Kant’s Categorical Imperative. While making art for art’s sake is one thing, undermining a moral agent’s autonomy for art’s sake is a different—and I might add, unethical—matter entirely.
Could Bertolucci have defended his actions in some other way? Was Brando equally to blame because he knew of Bertolucci’s deception? What cannot be denied is that the Last Tango in Paris rape scene challenges our sensibilities about what is morally right and wrong. Perhaps that is the secret to the film’s lasting appeal.
Shane Ralston is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University Hazleton. You can read many of his other articles at his academia.edu page.