Critic's Notebook: Bernardo Bertolucci Indelibly But Disturbingly Pushed the Envelope of Onscreen Sex

Bernardo Bertolucci

The Italian filmmaker’s legacy is defined by his bold examinations of transgressive sexual themes, writes The Hollywood Reporter’s Rome-based critic, whose graduate thesis was on Bertolucci.

The death of Bernardo Bertolucci at 77 will come as a blow to anyone who grew up on Italian art house movies in their heyday. An intellectual and a sensualist capable of combining poetry and social issues in his films, the filmmaker was an ever-inventive auteur backed by the finest technicians of his day. His eclectic talent moved nervously between Europe and Hollywood, China and the world, as his themes touched the topics that most piqued his curiosity, from politics and society to psychoanalysis and eroticism.

One of the best-known Italian directors for his multiple-Oscar-winning historical epic The Last Emperor (1987), his fame is also tied to the shock effect of pioneering sex scenes like the infamous one in 1972's Last Tango in Paris, in which Marlon Brando (in one of his most iconic performances) uses butter as a lubricant in an anal rape scene with his young co-star Maria Schneider. How many members of the audience bought a ticket for scenes like this is unknown, but it unquestionably made its contribution to pushing the envelope of sex in the movies.        

What was less amusing was the effect that shooting this scene had on the 19-year-old Schneider, who knew nothing about it in advance and who later said she had felt “a little raped” by Brando and Bertolucci. They had hit upon the butter prop just before filming and decided not to tell her, so that she would react “naturally” to the humiliation. Addressing the issue years later after Schneider’s death in 2011, Bertolucci said he regretted not having discussed the scene with her or having ever apologized to her for cooking it up with Brando.

As a piece of filmmaking, Last Tango in Paris remains powerful, the story of two strangers who meet for intimate sexual encounters in a Paris apartment while refusing to exchange names. The ghost of his first wife haunts Paul, the Brando character, and his impersonality toward his lover Jeanne is the symptom of a man unable to love.

A warm, outgoing man himself, married to the British writer and director Claire Peploe, Bernardo stoically suffered through interviews with students writing theses on his films, like myself. His formidable intellect, which was ever scanning and, one imagined, judging those in front of him, made him a little fearsome, but he had the ready laughter of Italians to whom life has been good. Even from the wheelchair which he had to use after an operation on a herniated disc went wrong in 2003, he exuded magnetism and curiosity about the people around him.

Born in 1941 in the Emilia-Romagna region around Parma, the son of the acclaimed poet Attilio Bertolucci, Bertolucci's sympathy for the working class linked him to the most controversial Italian director of the '60s, Pier Paolo Pasolini. His first venture into filmmaking was as Pasolini’s assistant on Accatone. A year later, he made his directing debut at the precocious age of 21 on the Pasolini-inspired La commare secca, which revolved around the murder of a prostitute.

Bertolucci (like Marco Bellocchio, his illustrious contemporary) was inspired by a keen interest in psychoanalysis and the psychodynamics of relationships, and sexuality is never left out of the equation. He seemed well able to handle the public outcry and censors’ attacks on the transgressive sexual themes that recur in his films. Luna (1979), for instance, deals with mother-son incest; homosexuality appears in different guises in The Conformist (1970); and the 1976 Marxist epic 1900 boasts a memorable three-way masturbation scene involving Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Stefania Casini.

The director’s great themes are not just Freudian, however. His best films contain a powerful link between politics and sexuality, as in The Conformist, a major critical and commercial success, which started his long collaboration with director of photography Vittorio Storaro and editor Franco Arcalli. The unsavory story of a wealthy young intellectual who joins the Fascist party in the 1930s in self-denial of his homosexuality is paradoxically told with haunting, lyrical romanticism. Its theme of the conflict between conformity and personal freedom recalls the poignant Before the Revolution (1964), based on Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1948), and a young man’s choice between following left-wing politics and marrying into the comfortable bourgeoisie.

If the first half of Bertolucci’s 50-year-long career would be enough to establish his reputation as one of the greatest European art house auteurs, it was with Last Emperor that his larger career was launched with Hollywood stars and mainstream distribution. The visual panache and captivating storytelling of this biography of China’s last emperor won nine Academy Awards, including for best picture and director, and marked Bertolucci’s first partnering with British producer Jeremy Thomas.

His films in the '90s broke new ground, too, but none achieved the thrilling blend of passion, politics and artistic invention of the early films. The Sheltering Sky (1990), starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger, was atmospheric, but less than the Paul Bowles’ novel on which it was based, and the offbeat casting of Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha in 1993's Little Buddha gave that earnest film a strange pop feeling. Interestingly, two later pics, Stealing Beauty (1996) with a young Liv Tyler and The Dreamers (2003), set during the barricades of May 1968 in Paris, reprise the themes of sexuality and rebellion which made Bertolucci one of the most significant non-conformist artists of his time.