WATERVILLE — Some residents are objecting publicly to the showing of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris” at this year’s Maine International Film Festival because of the film’s depiction of what has in recent years been revealed as a real-life sexual assault on an actress.

The controversy is highlighting heightened awareness of sexual misconduct in the era of #MeToo and raising questions about the context of art and movies midway through the city’s popular film festival, which this year is partly dedicated to Bertolucci.

Karen Heck

Karen Heck, a former mayor of Waterville, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the film’s showing. Heck plans to be at Wednesday night’s showing of the film at the Waterville Opera House and hand out information to attendees beforehand.

“The film depicts a workplace assault,” Heck said.

The decision to feature the film was made solely by festival director Ken Eisen, who decides the entirety of the festival’s lineup. According to Eisen, he wanted to feature the film because of its new digital restoration, which was released recently, and it also paired nicely with another film screening during the festival, “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.” A page in the this year’s MIFF program is headlined “A Tribute to Bernardo Bertolucci.”

Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic during the time of the film’s release, dubbed “Last Tango in Paris” the “most powerfully erotic movie ever made.”

Eisen said Tuesday that he stands by his decision to feature the film, despite the objection by multiple residents.

“It’s a complicated situation,” Eisen said. “But the screening of the film is an exhibit of art, not an evaluation of how it was created. When you see a Picasso painting, you don’t evaluate the relationship he had with his models. … Any worthwhile work of art is open to interpretation. So people can choose to watch the film or not. That’s up to them.”

Although “Last Tango in Paris” was nominated for two academy awards at the 1973 Oscars, it’s currently banned in Bertolucci’s home country, Italy, and is rated NC-17 because of the graphic sexual content.

Ken Eisen

Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, the film has garnered controversy since its 1972 premiere because of its depiction of sexual violence. However, public outrage reached a peak in 2016 after video surfaced from three years earlier in which Bertolucci admitted to conspiring with Brando to add another graphic element to the films titular “butter rape” scene without the consent of Schneider, who was just 19 at the time of production.

According to Bertolucci, he didn’t disclose this unscripted element of the scene to Schneider because he, “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” Although no sexual intercourse was performed during that particular scene or in the film overall, Schneider disclosed during a 2007 interview with Daily Mail that she felt forced to perform the scene against her will.

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

Schneider, who died in 2011, also said she felt manipulated by Bertolucci into performing the scene and that she wasn’t aware that she could have objected.

“No one thought about the idea of assault in the workplace during the 1970s,” Heck said. “No one thought about it even in the 1990s, but we know more nowadays what actresses have had to face.”

For Heck, it’s not the actual content of the film or the festival itself she has a problem with, but rather the importance that moviergoers understand the context behind the filmed assault.

“I think it’s important to know about the assault before watching the film. To show it without context is what I object to,” Heck said. “I love MIFF. I’ve gone every single year, and I think it’s an amazing outlet to celebrate arts and film. My objection is in no way a condemnation of the festival but rather to call attention, to have a discussion about the programming.”

Bruce Olson, another opponent of the film’s showing, said the actions of Bertolucci and Brando are the real problem he has with the movie.

“It’s not so much the sexual violence in the movie. It’s when you look at the back story, how Brando and Bertolucci hid how they were going to film the scene,” Olson said. “They wanted her fear to be real; but if that’s the way we want film to be, wouldn’t we want fight scenes to include actual punches? For actors to be shot with actual bullets? If we can’t trust actors with their craft, then the ultimate manifestation of what Bertolucci was going for would be a snuff film where actual people are being harmed on screen.”

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider appear in a scene in the 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris.” Photo courtesy of Maine International Film Festival

Heck and Olson also feel that with the recent surge of the #MeToo movement, the screening of this film is especially sensitive.

“It’s a direct slap in the face to women who have been assaulted or are currently dealing with assault,” Heck said.

John Soifer, who’s known Eisen for 40 years, said that the decision to show the film sends a certain message to festivalgoers.

“This is not a religious or prudish issue to me. I saw the film when it came out in 1972 and the sex/rape scene is the centrality of the movie,” Soifer said. “Basically, there is and never should have been a time when celebrating rape is acceptable. Sadly, by picking this movie in this day and age, with other movies to pick from, it is celebrating and saying rape is acceptable to display and view under certain circumstances. However, it never ever is or should be accepted or appropriate.”

The screening of the film also acts as a tribute to Bertolucci, who died in November 2018 at the age of 77.

In order to bring more context to potential film goers, Heck plans to hand out information before its 9:30 p.m. screening on Wednesday.

“The information will let people know a little more about the assault that takes place, sexual assault in general,” Heck said. “With that information, it will possibly create another picture of Bertolucci and the film itself.”

 

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