THE DAY BERTOLUCCI FELT
ALL TANGOED OUT
Back in 1973, Bernardo Bertolucci
gave new meaning to the word "hot" with his steamy "Last
Tango in Paris." But when I interviewed him for The New York
Times on the day after the movie's premiere, he seemed to be coming
down with a big chill. Could it have been something I said? --GUY
am more than
bored," says Bernardo Bertolucci. "Ive been taking
all this as a game, and now I am tired of playing the game."
Its the morning
after the New York opening of "Last Tango in Paris," and
the game which bores the Italian director is the frantic game which
began last October, on the final evening of the New York Film Festival.That
was the night pent-up passions were unleashed in Philharmonic Hall
- the night Bertolucci buffs went berserk bellowing "Bravo,"
the night open-mouthed matrons did their weak-kneed best to stagger
out in a huff, and the night Pauline Kael stayed behind to confess
for all to hear that Bertoluccis "breakthrough"
movie had impressed her as no other movie had in the last 20 years.
rules of this new-fangled "Tango" game were not always
easy to grasp. For reasons that remain obscure, United Artists,
the films distributor, insisted that "Tango" could
have only one public exposure in this country before being whisked
back to Rome, where it quickly proved the biggest sensation since
But in Bologna, where not quite everything is up to date, one incensed
citizen whizzed his way to court and filed an obscenity charge against
the movie. Specifically, "Tango" was said to be "permeated
by scurrilous language - with crude, repulsive, naturalistic
and even unnatural representation of carnal union, with continued
and complacent scenes, descriptions and exhibitions of masturbation,
libidinous acts and lewd nudity." That did it: the film was
withdrawn throughout Italy - though it sizzled on and on in
Paris theaters - and Bertolucci and his stars Marlon Brando
and Maria Schneider teetered on the precipice of an eight-month
Last week, the court in Bologna acquitted the defendants, and "Tango"
was once again free to do its daredevil dance for the benefit of
liberated Italians. Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, the film had unfurled
at the Trans-Lux East, where overflow crowds of curious cineastes
were plopping down the porno price of five bucks per ticket. And,
in a suite at the Sherry-Netherland, Bertolucci was cautiously meeting
one of the most bewildering challenges of the "Tango"
game: The Interview.
"Im not sure what my film says," he begins, running
his fingers through his thick black hair and frowning. A 31-year-old
bachelor, Bertolucci is broodingly handsome enough to star in one
of his own films, and camera-shy enough to have turned down the
part of Dominique Sandas lover in "The Garden of the
Finzi-Continis." "One never knows what his film is about
until much later, but I think that one of the things 'Tango' is
saying is that relationships no longer exist, that people in our
society can no longer communicate with each other."
Bertolucci lights one of his frequent cigarettes. "The only
thing that still seems true is sex, so Paul and Jeanne - the
characters played by Marlon and Maria - try to find a common
language through sex. But their attempt is a romantic attempt, and
the reason they fail is that they want to isolate themselves, to
close reality and history outside of their apartment. But you cannot
forget the past, just as you cannot ignore the future. This concept,
of course, is political."
a fervent communist, has often been classed as a political moviemaker
and his Marxist motivation is easily discernible in such films as
"Partner," "Before the Revolution," "The
Spiders Strategem" and "The Conformist." But,
with "Tango," dogmatists are liable to be frustrated in
their pursuit of politics. While "Tango" may deal peripherally
with the class struggle, what its really dealing with is the
age-old, tension-fraught struggle between man and woman. And nobody
will faint to hear that feminists are infuriated by what they consider
the obnoxious, sex-object treatment of Maria Schneider in the movie.
They protest the fact that she is frequently - and frontally
- nude, while male-chauvinist-prude Brando manages to perform
his erotic exploits without baring so much as a belly button.
"I consider myself
a member of Womens Lib," says Bertolucci, half piqued
and half bored, "but I dont want to talk with women who
believe my film is misogynistic. That is too narrow a vision. Its
like in the early films of Lumiere - when the train arrived
in the station, the audience began fleeing because they thought
the train was going right through them. Those who find my film anti-feminist
are as naïve as the very first spectators of Lumiere, because
they make this equation: Marlon brutalizes Maria, therefore the
film is against women. Its a very simplistic interpretation
that confuses the material being narrated with the films ideology."
Still, there are those who feel that it is more artistic to suggest
crudity than to magnify it. "In the beginning, I was uncertain.
I could not decide if I should show the erotic scenes or not. Finally,
I concluded that it would be morbid not to show them."
One woman who obviously agrees with Bertolucci is Pauline Kael.
Presumably she would have traveled to the ends of the earth -
or at least to Bologna - if any censor dared to scissor "Tango".
And, according to Bertolucci, she was not at all pleased about the
last-minute cuts he himself made before the Trans-Lux East premiere,
particularly the scene in which Brando gets down on all fours and
snarls, mongrel-like, at a Bible salesman - a scene which
had caused Miss Kael to comment, "Brandos barking extends
the terms of his character and the movie."
"Pauline said, You shouldnt have done this to me,
but I never liked that scene. It was meant to be funny, but it was
sad, terribly embarrassing somehow. A little too phony. Ive
never seen a Bible salesman in Paris; that was just a scriptwriters
Speaking of perversion, the scene in which Brando forcibly sodomizes
Maria "was a very didactic scene. Marlon was teaching Maria
important lessons about social institutions - about marriage,
the family, the church."
And, like a true gentleman, Brando keeps his clothes on throughout
the entire lecture. "Marlons character in the film had
to be a little mysterious, and he felt that to take off his clothes
would be to unveil the mystery."
What Brando did unveil in "Tango" - in keeping with
Bertoluccis belief that the character should become the actor,
rather than the other way around - was a portion of his own
soul. This was especially true of the painful monologue in which
he recalls his tormented adolescence in the midwest - his
drunken parents, his overwhelming sense of spiritual isolation.
scene was completely improvised, and Marlon was truly naked at that
moment. I put 900 feet of film in the camera, because I had no idea
how long it was going to last. We did it in one take, and when it
was over, Marlon looked at me very strangely. I had the feeling
that maybe the next day he would not appear on the set. But I knew
if he did come back, he would stay on the film until it was completed.
I think that what he was feeling was the intense horror -
and fascination - of the intrusion upon his intimacy."
Bertolucci yields to no one in his veneration of Brando, yet there
were nervous-making moments. "Marlon was besieged by death
during Tango, and when I saw him do his first sequence,
looking up at the train and crying out, I was shocked. He started
at such a violent pitch that I said to myself, Maybe I cannot
work at the level of this actor.' I was very scared. My fear lasted
for the first week and then Marlon made me understand that he had
the same feeling about me. From that moment on, everything worked
Actually, Brando was not the original choice for "Tango,"
nor was Maria Schneider. Jean-Louis Trintignant, who had been so
impeccably chilling in "The Conformist," as a man who
embraces fascism in an effort to sublimate his homosexual tendencies,
was to have played Paul, but a conflict in his schedule made it
impossible. There was no re-writing done by Bertolucci and his co-author
Franco Arcalli, however. All of the changes were improvised before
the camera. Brando refused to tell Bertolucci the meaning of his
dying word - spoken in Tahitian - until recently. And
now its Bertoluccis secret, too.
But, basically, the original story of a burnt-out man driven to
assert his masculinity through the sexual humiliation of an amoral
girl remained the same. Yet there was a shift in emphasis. "I
started out to make a film about a couple, but instead I made a
film about two lonelinesses. Right from the moment when Maria passes
Marlon on the street and looks back at him, I understood that each
of them was damned to loneliness. Even in their scenes together,
they were always one plus one, never two. And the scene that is
most about this loneliness is the scene in which Maria masturbates
and Marlon goes into the other room and cries. He cries because
at that moment he is sincere about himself; he sees that he is trying
to find in sex a lost innocence - above all, to find through
sex an ideal relationship. At that moment, he understands that this
For the role of Jeanne - who, within the span of three days,
becomes engaged to one man, plays secret sadomasochistic games with
another, and then commits murder - Bertoluccis first
and second choices were Dominique Sanda and Catherine
Deneuve, each of whom became pregnant. "If Deneuve had
played the part, I would have pushed Marlon to dirty the kind of
bourgeois innocence that she always projects. I wanted him to dirty
it in order to show that bourgeois purity does not really exist.
The bourgeoisie cant be innocent, for class reasons."
But doesnt Bertolucci himself come from a middle-class family?
"That is how I know bourgeois innocence does not exist."
Bertoluccis early youth was spent in Parma, where his father,
Attilio Bertolucci, was a poet and film critic. When Bernardo was
13, the Bertolucci brood - there is a younger brother, Giusseppe
- moved to Rome, where Bertolucci pursued his education, more
in movie houses than in schools. By the time he was 20, he had dropped
out of the University of Rome, had published a book of poetry called
"In Search of Mystery," and had landed a job with his
fathers friend, Pier Paolo Pasolini,
as his assistant director on "Accatone."
Bertolucci is both precise and poetic when he gives his reasons
for becoming a man of the movies. "It is not I who chooses
films; it is films who choose me."
Perhaps he would like to elaborate?
"I like to say things, not elaborate on things."
Shortly after his apprenticeship with Pasolini in 1961, Bertolucci
went on to direct his own first feature, "The Grim Reaper."
Nevertheless, he has remained close to Pasolini over the years,
even though he seems disappointed by the older mans apparent
loss of political passion. " The Decameron and
Canterbury Tales are really not very inspired. Pasolini
hates the world of today, so he keeps repeating to himself, How
beautiful the world was when poor people were really poor and innocent.
This is the position of the reactionary poet."
The nearest Bertolucci has come to making a purely political feature
was a documentary which he shot last year for the Communist Party
and which was subsequently shown in the streets of Rome. "The
most important thing about that film was that it was the first time
cameras were allowed in an Italian hospital ward. It was all made
possible by labor leaders, and it documented the incredible, disastrous
conditions in the hospitals, where the sick are put in hallways
and bathrooms to sleep. After one hour, we were thrown out by the
directors of the hospital."
In spite of Bertoluccis concern for social reform, some skeptics
claim his chief cinematic aim is to flood the screen with a pulsating
blend of opulent imagery, perversely appealing characters, exotic
sets, bizarre relationships, operatic twists of plot and blunt but
ambiguous sex. Bertolucci himself says, "In my films, schizophrenics
grow like mushrooms," yet he insists that his cinema contains
substantial political content. He does admit, however, to a certain
theatrical flourish here and there.
"I attempted in Tango to marry Hollywood cinema
to European cinema
Brando with Schneider, lighting and precise
camera movement with cinema verite, script with improvisation, elaborate
décor with a wild way of shooting, a Hitchcock-type soundtrack
with Gato Barbieris tango. Like most Communist intellectuals
in Europe, I am condemned to be divided. I have a split personality
and the real contradiction within me is that I cannot quite synchronize
my heart and my brain. One of the two is always ahead of the other
one. That is my charm."
Bertolucci smiles a charming smile, which vanishes the second he
is asked to discuss his reputation as a ladies man.
"This is not an interesting question," he points out.
"People do not care about such things."
Could it be that he enjoys being a man of mystery?
"What does that mean a man of mystery?"
It means the sort of man who makes a breakthrough movie about sex
and then doesnt want anybody to break through to the mysteries
of his own sex life. To tell the truth, there was not all that much
mystery surrounding Bertoluccis affair with Adriana Asti,
the sensuous star of "Before the Revolution."
"Yes, Adriana was my mistress, but I fall in love with all
the actors in my films."
"Actresses, Bernardo, not actors," suggests the translator.
"Actresses and actors," says Bertolucci. "I fall
in love with them all; they are the prolongations of my penis. Yes,
my penis. Like Pinocchios nose, my penis grows."
After everyone has chuckled at this slightly puzzling joke, Bertolucci
adds, "Please understand, this is not a declaration of my bisexuality."
Not only does Bertolucci fall in love with his actors and actresses,
he may fall in love with a set dresser, as well. Take Maria Paola
Maino, for example, who worked on "Tango."
"I was married to Maria without being married, but I feel no
guilt about it. Her husband knew; Maria and I were living together."
One wonders if there will ever be a marriage that is a marriage
- the kind with children and other family trappings. "I
am against the family as a social entity. When you are engaged in
a marriage, you are condemned."
Whats the alternative?
"Thats a question Im asking myself now. It is the
great question within me, the question I set forth in Tango,
the question of the validity of marriage. In our society, even adultery
becomes a bourgeois institution."
Occasionally, the questions within Bertolucci have popped up on
the analysts couch. Is he in analysis now?
"No, I am in the Sherry-Netherland now," he jokes. "But,
yes, I am in Freudian analysis. Saint Sigmund."
Brando, too, is no stranger to the analysts couch, and Bertolucci
says that their analyses were in perfect sync at the time of "Tango."
Since Bertolucci had done so much to revitalize the Brando legend,
is there a chance that the triumphant pair might synchronize on
"Thats difficult to say. Ive stolen a lot from
Marlon, and since I only use actors for what they are, Im
afraid he may not want to repeat himself. On the other hand,"
says Bertolucci with a devilish glint in his eye, "maybe he
did not really die on that terrace in Tango. "