"This is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies," wrote Pauline Kael in her epic review of Last Tango in Paris, a film that she declared had altered the face of the art form.
What was argued about in coffee houses 40 years ago boiled over into heated outrage on social media this past weekend, in response to a recently posted YouTube video of a television appearance by director Bernardo Bertolucci done three years ago, edited and posted by a Spanish non-profit organization, related to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
In the video, Bertolucci describes surprising and deliberately humiliating and enraging the 19-year-old actress Maria Schneider in Tango's notorious sodomy scene involving butter. Many, including journalists, jumped to conclusions, aided by headlines that worked in the phrase "non-consensual rape scene."
"I feel sick," tweeted actress Jessica Chastain. Actress Jenna Fischer tweeted that all copies of the film "should be destroyed immediately." The press couldn't resist. Time Magazine tweeted: "Last Tango in Paris director admits controversial butter rape scene was really rape."
Or, maybe not. On Monday, the 76-year-old Bertolucci said the outrage was based on a "ridiculous misunderstanding," and that Schneider had read the script and prepared for the scene, but the butter, which was introduced at the last minute, was what triggered her anger.
However reprehensible his methods, Bertolucci's explanation is plausible. The scene, frankly, looks simulated, with Brando, then 48, rolling around on top of Schneider, who speaks lines of dialogue until she eventually breaks into sobs. The actress, who died of cancer in 2011, is on record as saying she was humiliated and angered by the introduction of the butter, but no actual sex took place between her and Brando, who remained a friend.
"Even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears" she said in a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail.
Schneider had battles with drugs and mental illness, which she blamed on the scandal and early fame, but she made more than 40 movies after Last Tango, which she subsequently dismissed as "kitsch."
It seems unlikely that the Last Tango controversy of 2016 can now be declared resolved. Instead, it seems likely to become embedded in the culture, a post-truth story that seems more outrageous and thus more convincing than the ambiguous reality.
There are timely reasons why the Last Tango story exploded now: It's a story about an abuse of age and power and sex, in a world where the U.S. president-elect can brag of sexual assault, and where America's beloved fatherly comedian, Bill Cosby, is accused of being a serial rapist. The movie, once considered revolutionary and sexually liberating ("The most powerfully erotic movie ever made," Kael wrote), now seems relegated to the status of an allegory of baby-boomer male egoism run rampant.
The movie itself is an unfortunate casualty of changing intellectual orthodoxies. While not Bertolucci's best, it is a not-insignificant exploration of the idea of liberation, with a unique performance by Brando. His character Paul, the middle-aged, grieving widower, and Schneider's Jeanne, a young woman engaged to be married, are drawn together by desperation and a desire for authenticity.
When Paul turns conventional and actually falls in love with his anonymous partner, she rejects him and, after revealing her name, shoots him. The movie ends with the speech she will make to the police: That he was a stranger who attempted to rape her. The fiction of the sexual assault seems to have spilled off the screen and into the public's lurid imagination.
None of this is intended to invalidate the outrage, which is as much about the institution of filmmaking as the confused specifics of the case. Bertolucci's mistreatment of Schneider, Alfred Hitchcock's terrorizing of Tippi Hedren in The Birds or Stanley Kubrick's cruelty to Shelley Duvall in The Shining all represent an abusive sexual dynamic that has too long been embedded in film culture. If any lesson can come of this misconstrued story, it's that it is time for this tango to stop.