Obituary

Last Tango In Paris director tackled sex and politics in film

Bernardo Bertolucci's (above) The Last Emperor (top) won nine Oscars and Last Tango In Paris (left) pushed boundaries in depicting sexuality on the big screen.
Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (above) won nine Oscars and Last Tango In Paris pushed boundaries in depicting sexuality on the big screen.PHOTOS: LES PRODUCTIONS ARTISTES ASSOCIES, RECORDED PICTURE COMPANY
Bernardo Bertolucci's (above) The Last Emperor (top) won nine Oscars and Last Tango In Paris (left) pushed boundaries in depicting sexuality on the big screen.
Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor won nine Oscars and Last Tango In Paris (above) pushed boundaries in depicting sexuality on the big screen.PHOTOS: LES PRODUCTIONS ARTISTES ASSOCIES, RECORDED PICTURE COMPANY
Bernardo Bertolucci's (above) The Last Emperor (top) won nine Oscars and Last Tango In Paris (left) pushed boundaries in depicting sexuality on the big screen.
Bernardo Bertolucci's (above) The Last Emperor won nine Oscars and Last Tango In Paris pushed boundaries in depicting sexuality on the big screen.PHOTOS: LES PRODUCTIONS ARTISTES ASSOCIES, RECORDED PICTURE COMPANY

Bernardo Bertolucci, who began Freudian analysis in 1969, said he expressed his libido and aggression through his work

ROME • In 1987, when Bernardo Bertolucci was honoured by the Directors Guild Of America, he said: "Maybe I'm an idealist but I still think of the movie theatre as a cathedral where we all go together to dream the dream together."

On Monday, when he died in his home in Rome, reportedly of cancer, many, who shared the same conviction, paid tribute to the 77-year-old Italian film-maker whose sensual and visually stylistic movies ranged from intense chamber dramas to panoramic historical epics.

Bertolucci's early work reflected the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, in particular the shifting social and sexual mores of the times.

He drew inspiration from the French new wave and routinely worked across borders and with international casts.

The Last Emperor (1987), a lavish biopic of Pu Yi, who became the emperor of China at age three, won all nine Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director.

But his best-known - and most controversial - film came earlier in his career: Last Tango In Paris (1972), a depiction of the intense sexual relationship between a middle-aged American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young Frenchwoman (Maria Schneider).

Schneider, who was 19 during the shoot, later described the filming of a notorious rape scene involving butter as a traumatic experience.

Bertolucci came under fire for comments in a 2013 interview in which he revealed that Schneider, who died in 2011, was not told that Brando would use butter in that scene of simulated sex. He wanted "Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation".

Last Tango received an X rating, landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and earned US$36 million at the American box office.

In Italy, the film was the subject of a protracted obscenity trial. In 1976, the court ordered all copies destroyed and handed Bertolucci a four-month suspended sentence.

Yet critics such as Pauline Kael of the New Yorker hailed the film as a trailblazing work of art. She proclaimed it "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made" and called its premiere at the New York Film Festival "a landmark in movie history".

Bertolucci went on to release critically acclaimed films such as The Sheltering Sky (1990), starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich as a couple who travel to North Africa to save their marriage, and The Dreamers (2003), about an erotic love triangle formed during the 1968 student riots in Paris.

Bertolucci was born on March 16, 1941, in Parma, Italy. Despite early success as a poet - a collection of his poetry won the prestigious Viareggio Prize in 1962 - he chose to devote himself to cinema. His debut, The Grim Reaper, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1962.

French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard was an early influence, looming large over Bertolucci's third - and most experimental - feature, Partner (1968).

In what he described as a pivotal moment in his creative life, Bertolucci began Freudian analysis in 1969. He spoke often and openly about the process, describing himself in a 1977 interview with The Washington Post as "a repressed person" who "can express my energy, my libido, my aggression, only in my work".

Many of his films - which abound with father figures, Oedipal conflicts, identify confusion and dream logic - are ripe for psychoanalytic readings. The two films that he made in quick succession after entering analysis, both tackling Italy's fascist history, were breakthrough works often ranked among his most enduring achievements.

In The Spider's Stratagem (1970), adapted from a Jorge Luis Borges story, a young man investigates the death of his father, a resistance leader. The same actors appear in both past and present-day sequences, creating a disorientingly fluid sense of time and underscores the persistence of history.

Using an even more intricate flashback structure, The Conformist (1970), set during the Mussolini era and based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, connects the fascist mindset with repressed sexuality. The protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a closeted man who, in his bid for normalcy, marries, joins the Fascist Party and agrees to assassinate a former professor.

The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist marked the beginning of a long collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who contributed to Bertolucci's reputation as a visual stylist.

A lifelong leftist and member of the Italian Communist Party in his 20s and 30s, Bertolucci began to question the viability of political filmmaking as his work grew more popular.

"You cannot make political films in a commercial situation," he told The New York Times in 1973. "The more revolutionary the film, the less the public would accept it."

With Last Tango, he moved away from the questions of political idealism and guilt that had preoccupied him and towards the sexual revolution then unfolding.

The success of The Conformist and Last Tango allowed Bertolucci to embark on his most ambitious film, 1900, a multi-generational family saga about the class struggle with a large international cast, including Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Donald Sutherland.

He unveiled a 51/2-hour cut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976 to mixed reviews and a four-hour version for US release the next year.

In 1978, he married Clare Peploe, who had worked with him as an assistant director on 1900.

He wrote his next film Luna (1979) - about an opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) and her teenage son - with Peploe and his brother Giuseppe. The Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man (1981) won Ugo Tognazzi the best actor prize at Cannes.

Capitalising on the vogue for historical prestige pictures, Bertolucci shifted back into epic mode with The Last Emperor, the first Western feature granted permission to film in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The film grossed US$44 million in the United States. While the film plays out against China's tumultuous passage from feudalism to communism, Bertolucci conceded that his primary interest was less in historical events than in the psyche of his passive protagonist (John Lone), who was re-educated during the Cultural Revolution and died a humble gardener.

Slowed by poor health and back problems, he directed his final film, Me And You (2012), from a wheelchair. Another intimate drama, it revolved around a troubled adolescent hiding in a basement with his half-sister.

For Bertolucci, the growing insularity of his work was less a result of a narrowing worldview than a reflection of the world he saw around him. "Politics was part of our life," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. "People don't seem involved or passionate anymore; politics is something distant."

He is succeeded by Peploe. They had no children.

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2018, with the headline 'Last Tango In Paris director tackled sex and politics in film'. Print Edition | Subscribe