By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Sex without knowing names.
Paul (Marlon Brando) is a middle-aged American man living in Paris who’s despondent over his wife Rosa’s recent suicide. Feeling alone and without direction he meets up with Jeanne (Maria Schneider),a much younger woman, while both are looking to rent the same apartment. Jeanne is dating Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud) a filmmaker who wants to film her life and make it into a movie, which Jeanne is not so keen about. Despite not knowing Paul’s name, as he wants their identities to remain a mystery, she gets into a torrid sex affair with him and finds Paul’s evasive manner to be both frustrating and intriguing. However, after he rapes her he disappears and Jeanne considers their relationship over, but Paul meets her on the street a few days later, but this time he tells her all about himself, but hearing the sad details of his lonely life makes him less appealing to her. She tries to get away from him, but Paul continues to pursue her, which ultimately leads to tragedy.
The film is probably better known for the controversy and scandal it caused upon its release than anything else. While some of its sexual aspects will seem somewhat tame by today’s standards back in 1972 it became a hotly contested commodity where the government in Italy openly banned the film and ordered all copies of it seized and destroyed while also revoking director Bernardo Bertolucci’s right to vote for 5 years. Residents of Spain, where the film was also banned, would travel hundreds of miles to the French border just so they could see the film that everyone was talking about. In the US the controversy was no different with conservative pundits labeling it ‘pornography disguised as art’. In Montclair, New Jersey residents tried to physically block movie goers from going in to see the film by forming a human chain in front of the theater and those that were able to break through got labeled as being ‘perverts’.
Today the most controversial aspect are Maria Schneider’s accusations that the infamous ‘butter scene’ where Brando rapes her anally while using butter as a lubricant was not planned nor scripted and the she was taken by complete surprise. In a 2013 interview Bertolucci admits that Maria did not know the details of the scene ahead of time and this was intentional in order to capture the genuine look of shock on her face. While Bertolucci says he does not regret doing the scene he still felt bad for Maria, who maintained up until her death in 2011, that she had been both ‘violated’ and ‘humiliated’ and never spoke to Bernardo afterwards.
As for the film itself it’s interesting on a technical end, I particularly enjoyed its fragmented/dream-like narrative, but it also comes-off as being a bit overrated. It was based on Bertolucci’s own sexual fantasies regarding his desire of picking-up a young, beautiful woman off the streets and having a passionate sexual affair with her without ever knowing her name, or having any responsibilities or obligations attached to it, which is certainly an intriguing idea for a script, but the way the two come together seemed just a bit too rushed and unrealistic. Brando, who never bothered to memorize his lines and ad-libbed most of it, seems to be playing himself as he displays the same moody, self loathing quality that he also conveyed in every interview I’ve seen him in making it less about creating a character and more just him showing his true nature. Schneider is the best thing about the movie, as is the scene where the two disrupt a tango dance contest, but ultimately the film leaves one with a dark, depressed, and dismal feeling after it’s over.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: October 14, 1972
Runtime: 2 Hour 10 Minutes
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Studio: United Artists
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, Pluto TV, YouTube