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A Conversation With Bernardo Bertolucci

The ‘Last Tango in Paris’ director on sexuality, politics and the averageness of fascism

Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo BERTOLUCCI relaxing in his suite at the London Savoy Hotel promoting his film LAST TANGO IN PARIS, London, England, March13th, 1973

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty

Once or twice a year the New York film critics, as a way of overcoming seasonal occupational identity crises, create occasions to wail and gnash their teeth in a series of intricate and ritualized battle gestures. The “occasion” for this intertribal aggression can be anything from a book like Pauline Kael’s Citizen Kane, a “provocative” review by John Simon in the New York Times — begging for a counter attack — or even, strange to say, a movie itself. What is most important in all of this is not the specific book, article or film but rather the opportunity each writer gets to affirm a “critical” position, register an esthetic preference vis-a-vis the “others,” and, last but not least, extract a bit of publicity for everyone concerned.

The most recent shot-at-Sarajevo excuse for another round of the New York critics’ skirmish is Last Tango in Paris — probably the greatest occasion for critical self-assertion and self-aggrandizement in the past ten, 20, 30 years — perhaps in the history of cinema. Superlatives are of course integral to the history and success of the film. The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael led the first charge when, after Last Tango‘s premiere at last year’s N.Y. Film Festival (for which tickets were harder to come by than for the Ali-Frazier fight or the Bangla Desh concert), she compared the screening to the riotous first-night 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, calling the film “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating … Brando and Bertolucci have altered the face of an art form.”

Andrew Sarris led the first counter-assault against Tango in the Village Voice, and John Simon started dropping napalm in the New Leader. Neutralists like the N.Y. Times’ Vincent Canby and the slightly more anti-Tango Judith Crist of New York magazine could hardly get into the action before the Daily News’ Wanda Hale outflanked them all with a brilliant maneuver: Using her “last” review of Last Tango to announce her retirement as a critic, she gave the film four stars while reminding everyone that her first foray in the battlefield had consisted of giving four stars to a Shirley Temple movie.

Needless to say, the winners of this particular battle have been the critics and the film’s distributor, United Artists. The supposed object of the whole fracas — Last Tango itself — has been selling out almost every performance in New York at $5 a head. And on the perimeter of the critical in-fighting — undoubtedly watching the smoke and flares with perplexity and amazement — has been the film’s 31-year-old director, Bernardo Bertolucci.

My own interest in Bertolucci began eight years ago when I first saw Before The Revolution — the second feature film made by the director when he was 22! This extraordinary movie, partly based on Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and partly autobiographical, tells the story of a young man from Parma who, torn between a romantic sensibility — a “nostalgia for the present” — and a theoretical Marxism, falls in love with his neurotic but liberated aunt, only to marry his wealthy sweetheart.

Like the foal which, in its first steps, reveals its full-grown characteristics, Before The Revolution reflects in microcosm many of the concerns and obsessions with sexuality and politics that Bertolucci would later develop in films like: A Spider’s Stratagem — a lush, elliptical, almost Brazilian cinema nuovotextured movie about a young man who returns to his birthplace in order to discover the facts about the death of his father, a martyred anti-fascist resistance fighter; Partners — a modernization of Dostoyevsky’s The Double starring Pierre Clementi as a young drama teacher who wishes to combine the Theater of Cruelty with political revolution; and The Conformist — a film about a sexually repressed Italian fascist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is ordered to kill his former professor, now an anti-fascist leader in Paris.

Brought up in Parma, Bertolucci started to make short films as a teenager. At 20 he published a book of poems entitled In Search of Mystery, worked as an assistant director on Pasolini’s brilliant first film Accattone, and made his own first feature The Grim Reaper — influenced in part by Pasolini’s depiction of the life of Roman pimps and prostitutes. For several years after he made Before The Revolution, Bertolucci couldn’t obtain financing for his feature films, and during this period he made an industrial film about oil in Persia for Italian television.

Like a number of other Italian film directors, Bertolucci is a member of the Communist party. But, as he told Guy Flatley of the New York Times, “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 is in the midst of Freudian analysis in Rome, and one often imagines, when watching his films, that some of the director’s contradictions are a result of a Freudian view of life working against the grain of his Reichian themes and subject matter. At one point when I talked about how I thought the director Max Ophuls seemed to use the camera as if it were an instrument of memory itself, Bertolucci suggested that what was important for him in filming was what was happening “inside” the camera — as if (or so he seemed to imply) the camera itself acted as a kind of unconscious. Certainly, Bertolucci is an instinctive filmmaker, and you often feel that he uses his “contradictions” to energize his visually virtuosic and very painterly movies.

The director was in New York for several weeks in February in order to answer an interminable number of reporters’ questions about his latest film. I arrived at Bertolucci’s suite at the Sherry Netherlands Hotel early one Saturday afternoon. Relaxed, gracious, charming, and acting as if he had nothing better to do, Bertolucci offered us coffee and then put on a record he had apparently been listening to over and over again that week — Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man film score. “It sounds like Italian rock & roll,” he said approvingly. “I love it!” Michele Barbieri — the wife of Gato Barbieri who composed and performs the music for Last Tango — helped translate Bertolucci’s mixture of 70% Italian/ 20% French/10% English, after which the director took a group of us out to lunch at Sardi’s — the restaurant which is the gathering place for blooming and fading film and theater stars. Bertolucci seemed to enjoy his anonymity — no one recognized him — and looked excitedly at all the older Hollywood “types” eating their meals.

Over our lunch, he spoke about films. Bertolucci is a real film buff, and he talks about the famous pan shot in Welles’ Touch Of Evil (the shot begins in Mexico and ends up on the US side of the border) or about moments in Rossellini’s Voyage In Italy, Resnais’ Muriel, Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, and John Huston’s Judge Roy Bean with the childlike enthusiasm of someone seeing cinema for the first time. He spoke about his plans concerning the next film he is about to make in Italy entitled 1900 — a movie about the disappearance of the agricultural society and the traditions of the tilling farmers — “the agony of the soil.” After he finishes 1900, Bertolucci mentioned that he expects to direct a version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in this country. (While we were all walking to lunch, I happened to hear Bertolucci casually ask the man who was helping the director get around in New York if he’d consider being in Red Harvest. “You’d be perfect for one of the gang members,” said Bertolucci. “Really, I hope you do it.” A star is born.)

When we began talking at the hotel, I asked Bertolucci about something he had mentioned in an interview with the Times: “I fall in love with all the actors in my films,” he had said. “They are the prolongations of my penis. Yes, my ‘penis.’ Like Pinocchio’s nose, my penis grows!” — J. C.

Forgetting the male actors for a moment, how do you relate to your actresses? Is it different from the way you approach a woman you like?
The manner in which we who love the cinema love a woman is very special. It’s a very mythological way of loving women — and it’s doomed to sado-masochism. There’s a beautiful short story I like by Norman Mailer; it appears in Advertisements For Myself, and it has to do with what I’ve been saying. A guy’s walking with his girlfriend and he’s got a pad on which he writes down everything she does and says, but she really is annoyed by this. So he stops. When she starts to walk ahead of him, however, he starts writing again. She gets really mad, they start fighting, and at the end she leaves him. Very unhappy, he walks through the streets, and in order to console himself, to make himself feel better, he begins writing again on his pad. … A very nice story.

Do you feel that way when you direct an actress?
The problem for me isn’t when I direct an actress, it’s when I love a woman. I love all the actors and actresses in my films — always. I couldn’t film them if I didn’t love them.

So you have the same problem the character in Mailer’s story has.
Luckily there are contracts, agreements, money. … I’m the director, they’re the actors.

So you have it both ways.
Of course.

The French director Robert Bresson once talked about how he liked to work with “virgin” actresses — actresses who had never acted before — and about how by directing them for the first time he “seduced” them.
It’s probably because Bresson has a great sense of sin. I don’t. I take the girls who have been seduced by Bresson, dress them in evening clothes, and take them to a dance for the first time. … Like Dominique Sanda, who was first in Bresson’s A Gentle Creature.

The ideas of sexuality and politics come up in all your films — sometimes in a confusing manner. You present a number of characters who seem in many respects to be sexually liberated, yet their liberated actions often seem to emerge from and also reveal a basically unliberated personality. I’m thinking specifically of the neurotic Gina in ‘Before The Revolution’; Dreifa, the mistress and mother surrogate in ‘A Spider’s Stratagem’; the narcissistic Pierre Clementi hero in ‘Partners’; Dominique Sanda in ‘The Conformist’; and now Marlon Brando in ‘Last Tango.’ With Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in ‘The Conformist’ you give us a character in whom fascism is a kind of repressed homosexuality. Wilhelm Reich wrote that fascism is only the politically organized expression of the average human character. Do you agree?
Yes, I think the average man is fascistic. All my characters are average persons who are conscious of being average, and they’re made uncomfortable by being aware of this.

If the fascist tendency is universal, why make many of your characters fascists instead of communists?
Well, because the average man is fascist. All my characters are predestined. They’re doomed, but it’s not Destiny that’s decided to doom them, it’s their unconscious.

Don’t you think it’s possible to be liberated?
Of course. But I’m more interested in showing the process of liberation than in liberation itself.

Don’t you think that Brando’s character in ‘Last Tango’ reflects an unliberated quality?
I don’t think Brando’s character is liberated. He’s like we all are — someone who feels the weight of his own body. It’s interesting to note the relationship between Marlon’s body and the space around him. We are usually dominated by space, but Brando strangely dominates space. Personally, I need the camera to dominate the “space”; but Brando is the only person I’ve met who dominates space naturally without the need of a camera or a pen to write or a trapeze or a racing car. And Brando’s attitude toward life is different from that of other people because of this fact.

Well, it’s a very American idea — dominating space … Go West … take it over.
But even if Brando is absolutely still — say, sitting on a chair — the space around him is dominated by him. Before I even started filming him, Brando had already taken for himself that privileged space that’s also occupied by the figures in the paintings of Francis Bacon which you see behind the opening titles of the film. His dialectic with the space is the same as a work of art that’s already been achieved. It was very easy to work with Brando.

Isn’t this what dancers do, too?
Ballet is the art of the rapport between man and space, but it’s stylized, and Brando is “realistic.”

Why do you think that middle-aged heterosexual men especially seem to identify with Brando’s character in ‘Last Tango’?
I think it’s because of the continuous danger which is represented by Marlon’s virility — the idea of his virility always being in danger, and all heterosexual men can identify with this danger. Homosexuals aren’t in danger in this sense.

Well, then perhaps homosexuals are more liberated than phallically anxious heterosexuals.
But I don’t think homosexuals are necessarily liberated. They’ve only regressed — well, not so much regressed as remained at an anal sadistic stage.

So is the choice only between regression and phallic nervousness?
What you call phallic nervousness has more to do with a dynamic quality, and regression has to do with a static situation. Last night I went to a gay club, many guys dancing, and they just seemed totally frozen — nothing was happening. I’m not against homosexuality. It’s just that I think they’ve solved the problem even less than heterosexuals. But socially they’ve achieved a lot today.

Greek and Persian societies, for example, have been homosexual in orientation. Do you consider them regressive?
[A] They were civilizations that needed father images — kings, emperors and tyrants because they hadn’t solved their Oedipal problems.

In ‘A Spider’s Stratagem’ there’s one scene in which you show a young boy who’s trying to figure out the sex of a rabbit. And complementing this scene is one in which the hero is sitting in the garden and a young girl in a hat brings him something to drink, but at first you’re not sure whether it’s the same young boy or a girl. It’s a very dreamy, lush scene, and you get a feeling of hermaphroditism — similar to moments in ‘The Conformist’ as well. But ‘Tango’ seems to separate the “male” and “female” into two distinct spheres.
On one side, there’s Marlon — absolutely an adult and completely virile. On the other side there’s Maria Schneider and Jean-Pierre Leaud. And I personally have both these sides, too — adult/virile and also adolescent. And my adolescent part is bisexual — it’s represented by Maria and JeanPierre. So I think you can find this element you talked about in Tango as well.

To me, Marlon Brando’s role in ‘Tango’ represents the apotheosis of the American idea of male sexuality. ‘Tango’ is a very American and a very literary film in this sense: It’s as if you distilled the “male” ideology of Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. Marlon isn’t an intellectual. He doesn’t read very much. But, it’s incredible, when I looked at him during the shooting I found in him a lot of Henry Miller, a lot of Hemingway, a lot of Raymond Chandler — I think he’s a living concentrate of American literature. … But, you know, I think we should talk about the language of the film. I have a kind of nostalgia for an interview where we could go through a unity which is made up of both content and language. All my interviews are always about ideology.

I think this interest in “ideology” comes about because some persons think that you identify with Brando, while others think that Brando is just an actor in a movie, and others that Brando is playing Brando — I mean, if you had another actor in this role you’d have a different movie. But there is an idea about liberation and sexuality in ‘Tango’ which gets confused with the Brando “image.”
If someone’s looking for a theorem, then it’s confused. I didn’t want to make a theorem.

That reminds me of the Terence Stamp character in Pasolini’s ‘Teorema.’
There’s the same mystery about the Stamp and the Brando characters. But the first seems to come from paradise and the second from hell.

How do women you’ve spoken to respond to the relationship between Maria Schneider and Brando? [A] Women are the only ones who really understand the film. Because it’s a film that’s built on the concept of the inside of the uterus. Not just the room. Marlon in fact makes a voyage back to the uterus — so that at the end he’s a fetus. The colors in the film are uterine colors.

In a way it’s a bit like King Lear who starts off as an old man, then becomes a woman (suffering from hysteria), then a fool, a child. …
Yes, I see what you mean. And I don’t know if you noticed, but at the conclusion of Tango, Brando has to come back to pick up his chewing gum. You see, he takes a trip from adulthood back to the fetal stage. More than King Lear, Tango seems to me closer to one of Jean Cocteau’s films, where the hero makes a voyage to the underworld, to hell.

I gather that your original idea for ‘Tango’ was a story about a woman and a man — both married to other persons — who get together, not knowing each other’s name, and have a totally “free” relationship. But at the end of ‘Tango,’ Brando says: I love you, and then he gets killed. Freud believed that love and affection were ways of controlling socially destructive libidinal energy. And so you’re not sure whether Brando has given in to the “conventional” idea of love or whether he’s in fact become more “human.”
At this moment you find the whole Hollywood convention. But this Hollywood convention is “life.” And I think he finally understands that you can’t construct a relationship outside of history. He doesn’t want to know her name or anything about her past. And I think that is a very romantic concept. After all, we’re constructed with a past and a future, and if you don’t accept that, you’re creating a very romantic, individualistic, and politically horrible situation. Because we’re made up of all others. … But I don’t know if he really becomes more human or more stupid. When you say: “I love you, dummy” — as Brando says — I don’t know what you become. I know he’s very tender. He can be charming with violence or tenderness — both. But why does she kill him? Is it that she’s too bourgeois? Or that she’s better than he is and doesn’t want to accept his new conventionality? She shoots him with a gun that belongs to her father at the same moment that he puts her father’s hat on his head. So in a sense she kills her own father, too.

In the scene in the Metro station, Marie Schneider tells her cinema verite fiance Jean-Pierre Leaud that he’s using and violating her by following her around all the time with his camera — like the woman in the Norman Mailer story you mentioned before. And yet she’s basically really angry at Brando.
Yes. You’ve a good viewer.

But I’m not sure what this displaced anger on her part was really supposed to suggest.
Do you have a problem having to know what things signify?

Well, it’s because films try to make you subconsciously identify with characters — John Wayne, Gary Cooper, whomever.
Tango is a film of total communion between Hollywood and European cinema.

You certainly don’t seem to use as many traveling and circling shots as you did in your earlier films.
When I made Partners I was sick from the neurosis of style. Now after The Conformist, I’ve accepted myself as a maker of fiction and spectacle. And I’ve now been able to return to the style and the experimentation of Partners but with a new relationship that’s more equilibrated and serene.

Jean-Luc Godard has stated that it’s important not to make films on politics but rather to make films politically. You really seem to be standing on the opposite side from Godard at this point.
Yes. Godard and I used to be very close friends. He left a screening of Tango in Paris ten minutes after it started. And I felt he was in a sense sending me a message by walking out. We continue having a relationship without seeing each other — by symbolic gestures. But I also agree with Godard about the difference between the two kinds of film making. It’s just that I’m making films on politics. I also made a political film, however, last year for the Italian Communist party — about the miserable conditions of hospitals in Rome, and it was shown in the streets, using the walls as the screen.

I know that Visconti, Pasolini and Petri have been or still are communists. But there is a specifically romantic and operatic quality to many of Visconti’s and Pasolini’s films.
Well, Marxism can contain opera. In the 1800s, opera was still extremely popular. I think that Godard in his first film was a right-wing anarchist; now he’s a left-wing anarchist. To me, anarchists are dangerous to the fight of the masses. We have to make a distinction between Maoism in Europe — which is a neurosis of the petit bourgeoise — and Maoism in China, where it’s a great fundamental reality.

Many leftists think that’s because the Communist parties in Europe have become bourgeois.
That’s not true; it’s an invention of people like Godard and Gorin — those who are outside of the mass struggle. Considering the world situation today — and the European situation in particular — armed revolution isn’t possible. The revolution is being made day by day in the parliament. Every time that the extremists were able to attract a great following and were able to pass from verbal delirium to action, the situation itself jumped back 20 years. I think that for the working class, anarchism is dangerous.

How would a working-class Italian audience accept ‘Tango’?
When people go to the cinema it’s almost as if class didn’t exist — it cuts through class.

Coming back to Godard, I know that in ‘The Conformist’ you gave to the antifascist professor in the film Godard’s real address and telephone number.
I didn’t talk about it when I made the film, but now I can. It was a message I was sending to Godard. It was like a game — but a pretty serious game. After all, the film’s about a small Italian fascist who plans to kill his teacher and fuck his wife. Godard didn’t take it well. But I also wanted to tell Godard at the same time that — hypothetically — if I were a fascist and Godard were an antifascist, we were both of us still bourgeois. Professor Quadri is a bourgeois anti-fascist, but there is a kind of antifascism that isn’t based only on the idea of freedom but also on mass struggle and on scientific fact.

Have you seen Godard’s and Gorin’s ‘Tout Va Bien’? I think it’s an important film, and the way the relationship between Yves Montand and Jane Fonda is placed in a social context seems really extraordinary.
Yes, I was very moved by it. There were some things about it I didn’t care for. The characters of Jane Fonda and Yves Montand were a bit banal to me — they’re not in real life, of course. And I could tell when the camera moved when it was going to stop. What I really thought about Tout Va Bien was that in this film Godard begins to live again. When Godard theorizes he becomes very simplistic. But when he doesn’t do that he’s a great poet.

I’ve heard that because of Godard’s accident, Gorin played an important role in the making of this film.
Well, Gorin is more Godard than Godard. … You see, I have a political position and vision. We have at the same time to be conscious of the obvious fact that cinema in a commercial context is always used as a tool. And pornography is a tool — it’s invented by the distributors. For me, pornography really doesn’t exist.

‘Tango’ couldn’t be shown in Cuba or China.
Well, they have other kinds of problems. It would be interesting for a Chinese audience to see Tango.

They might see it as being about the death of capitalism.
Tango is my own fantasy about death — and capitalism, too. Both.

‘Before The Revolution’ — which you made when you were 22 — seems to me a film that someone in his 30s would make. And ‘Tango’ seems to be made by someone in his 50s.
Is that good?

It’s amazing. It’s unusual for a 31-year-old to make a film that understands the dynamics of the sexuality of this kind of character so well.
A tired sexuality [laughing]. Perhaps I’m 50 on the set because I’m like a 12-year-old in real life [smiling].

Which young directors do you find some kind of affinity with?
I feel close to the structures of Oshima, the lighting of Francis Ford Coppola, to the obsessions about cinema of Bogdanovich, and to the gesticular violence of Glauba Rocha.

As for older directors, I can sense your admiration for Renoir, von Sternberg and Max Ophuls. Did you ever see Ophuls’ ‘La Signora di Tutti’?
Just the sequence where Isa Miranda makes a telephone call to her lover. But what influenced me about this sequence had to do with what I could imagine happening around that sequence rather than with the sequence itself. It’s like a still life by Courbet. You see three or four apples, one pear, the drape; and you can imagine the atmosphere of the house, the table, what’s going on in the bedroom downstairs, in the garden. … I like to show paintings to Storaro. my cinematographer, before we shoot. In A Spider’s Stratagem we looked at a lot of naif paintings — like the ones seen over the titles. And we discovered that the way the naif artists painted the night was similar to the way Magritte painted it — a night-blue in which you can see everything, discovering each and every detail. So we used to shoot between light and dark. And if you shoot without the filter you get a kind of liquid blue that bathes the people.

The town in ‘A Spider’s Stratagem’ looked a bit like some early di Chiricos.
No, I think there was more di Chirico in The Conformist — you know, the space, the small persons and the enormous architecture…. Incidentally, I saw an incredible film on Italian television a month ago: The Fountainhead. Very fascist in its celebration of individualism … but Patricia Neal’s performance is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in the cinema.

I like the way you use bicycles in your early films.
That’s because I come from a region in Italy where everyone rides them. Speaking of bicycles, I recently saw Antonioni’s footage on China. He just went around filming, and at one point you see a wonderful sequence showing all those people on bicycles. It was so much like the Po Valley where both I and Antonioni were born.

‘Zabriskie Point’ to me was like an Italian movie. Antonioni’s depiction of the political situation in this country didn’t seem all that effective … but the scenes in Death Valley!
The first time I saw it I didn’t like it, but the second time … yes, very, very much. And now it’s going on in my mind over and over.

Did you notice that written on the hero’s plane are the words: “She-He-It”: Sheeit!
Shit [laughing].

Right. And I thought that that suggested what the film was about. The heroine (she), the hero (he), and the id (it) — that deepest point in the body of the earth.
That’s really interesting. I must ask Antonioni about that…. [pause] Do you remember Yeats’ lines about the dancer?

It’s strange, I was just going to ask you about them: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance/How can we know the dancer from the dance?” You have all those wonderful dances in all your films.
I was just thinking of those lines. Yes, there are some people through whom culture finds its own continuity, don’t you think so? It’s a way of allowing things to survive. At this moment we’re keeping alive some verses of Yeats. And when we were talking about Japanese films before, we were also keeping alive some moments of Mizoguchi, bringing those moments forward as if they were objects, maybe conserving them as we go about creating. And that, I think, is what we’re doing here.

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