Last Tango in Paris

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Michelle Karaivanov

Why was Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film, Last Tango in Paris, considered controversial and transgressive to the American culture at the time of its release?

Michelle Karaivanov

Year 1, BA (Hons) Digital Film Production, 2014

Last Tango in Paris was first screened in America at the New York film festival on October 14th 1972. Tickets were being sold for $150 each and the film made its budget 28 times over just in the USA by 1973 (The Internet Movie DataBase, website, 2014). It remains one of the most notoriously controversial films (Most Controversial, various authors and websites). But why? I am going to discuss this in relation to the MPAA’s rating of Last Tango in Paris,  the new generation of audience and the sexual revolution of the sixties.

Upon its release, in Italy, director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Alberto Grimaldi and actors Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider were all indicted in court for making a film which is ‘offensive to public decency’ (Malcolm, online article, 2000), in America, the MPAA – Motion Picture Association of America – stamped Last Tango in Paris with the highest X rating and, in the UK, it became the first film to be prosecuted under Britain’s Obscene Publications Act (The Internet Movie DataBase, website, 2014). Clearly, the film was controversial, however, is it that such events as those above created the controversy, rather than the film itself?


In a documentary about the ratings system, a sense of being blacklisted is evident in the directors that have been given the X-rating. They describe finding it difficult to advertise films on TV as most channels refused. They also expressed issues with distribution as many cinemas would not show X rated films. Director Katherine Pierce thinks that ‘unfamiliarity is what generally breeds these [X] ratings’ (This film is not yet rated, DVD, 2006). In relation to the American audience, the MPAA X rating was widely thought to be given only for films that are truly obscene. Although Last Tango In Paris involves two famously sexually transgressive moments ­‐ anal sex and Brando describing a bestial fantasy ­‐ the acts are not explicit; the anal sex scene is one of the only sex scenes where neither character is naked and the bestial fantasy is never shown. It seems that the unfamiliarity of these sexual acts being discussed openly is what had spawned the rating. Consequently, the rating layered controversy onto the film before the general public could decide for themselves and therefore one of the possible reasons for its infamy was the fact that it was constricted to a niche audience due to the difficulties in distribution which came with the rating.

The 1960s and early 1970s was a time of change. Student protests began occurring all over America, particularly in the North, as a reaction to political failure in the Cold War, namely the slaughter of soldiers in Vietnam and the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion, which in turn led to a distrust in the government (Jackson, website, 2014). These protests were also times in which students protested other pent up issues such as sociological inequalities, particularly focusing on minorities such as black people and homosexuals. The younger generation was questioning everything their parents had put down before them, not only politically but also culturally; ‘A large measure of the generational chasm of the 1960s and early 1970s was born of rapidly evolving fashion and hairstyle trends that were readily adopted by the young, but often misunderstood and ridiculed by the old’ (The History Channel, website, 2014).


Last Tango in Paris can be considered a film for the ‘dynamic youth subculture’ (Jackson, website, 2014), a film that echoes what students have protested about in the years before it’s release. In the movie, the characters that Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider play are both desperately trying to overcome their old lives with this passionate affair they undertake. Brando forbids the exchange of any personal details such as their names during the affair. This anonymity helps link their characters to the audience ­‐ everyday people – who attempt to exorcise their past and their fears using this turbulent sexual relationship. However, Schneider managers to wrangle details from Brando progressively during the film. In the context of 1970s America, Brando can be seen as representing the old generation, trying to desperately forget his past, ignore his mistakes and move forward as nonchalantly as before, whilst Schneider can be seen as representing the young generation, wishing to unearth and overcome the past in order to create a more harmonious future. In this respect, some of Last Tango in Paris’ controversy came from the frank depiction of life with all of its errors and flaws that transgresses the rose-­tinted view of life that the old generation was trying to preserve. Indeed, even Brando’s character says, as he sees the corpse of his late wife, ‘Look at you! You’re a monument to your mother! You never wore makeup!’ (Last Tango in Paris, Film, 1972) which shows his disapproval of the ideas instigated by the generation previous to his. Similarly, in one of the most famous reviews of the film, critic Pauline Kael says that ‘When [Schneider] lifts her wedding dress to her waist, smiling coquettishly as she exposes her pubic hair, she’s in a great film tradition of irresistibly naughty girls’. This further hints at the attitudes of the students of the time in shunning their mothers’ and fathers’ beliefs – being ‘irresistibly naughty’ (Kael, online article, 1972).


One of the main ideas associated with the youth subculture of the 60s and 70s is the sexual revolution. ‘It was the age of self-­indulgence’ (The Sixties ‐ The Years That Shaped a Generation, DVD, 2005) and this was most obvious in the assertion of ‘free love’ and sexual freedom and the newfound acceptance of the human body as sexy rather than sex‐less. Last Tango in Paris can be considered, in its basest form, a sex film. Indeed, a great deal of controversy surrounding it derives solely from this consideration. However, when viewed more deeply, the sex within the film is simply an extension of true human nature – ‘the sex isn’t the point, it’s only the medium of exchange’ (Ebert, website, 1972). This exchange occurs within each viewer, an exchange between what they consider to be their actual sexuality and the version of it they choose to show to others. The basis of the sexual revolution was that these two ideas merge and people are free of the masks they felt they had to put on before. Last Tango in Paris was not afraid to show this.

‘Here was a film that presented sexuality frankly and openly, pubic hair and all, in an era when even Playboy had only recently, and reluctantly, started to move below the waist’ (Phipps, website, 2014). In relation to this quote, this movie can be deemed as transgressing the norm of the time and was indeed ahead of its time – The first time Playboy showed the female pubic region was in 1973 (Alafoto Gallery, website, 2014). According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, in cinema we, the audience, are confronted with ‘the deepest level of our desires that we are not even ready to admit to ourselves’ (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, DVD, 2006). Last Tango in Paris was controversial in that it revelled in showing sexual desire between two people and acceptance of the human body in its most intimate form; ideas that had been repressed before the sexual revolution.


In my analysis I have considered only three factors that affected the way in which Last Tango in Paris was viewed upon it’s release in America in 1972. I have chosen to focus less on the actual film and more on the context surrounding it as I believe that part of the problem of the controversy that enveloped the film in America was the fact that it was not widely shown due to it’s immediate dismissing by a select few. Controversy itself appears to be a taboo subject, one that prevented many people within more puritanical cultures wanting to see the film upon release. Although it has become a legend in the film world, the treatment of the topics shown and discussed within the film has been a turbulent one. The acts depicted within it seem to have been lifted above the actual cinematic beauty of the film itself – from Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s slow movements and Philippe Turlure’s muted design choices to Brando’s powerhouse performance and the elegance of Bertolucci’s script… With the release of Lars Von Trier’s sexually explicit Nymphomaniac this year, we see that the control and establishment of controversy has not faded and prevents truly incredible films from being properly appreciated and enjoyed.


Alafoto Galley (2014) Playboy Centerfolds FULL COLLECTION 1953-­‐2014 years [Online] Available at: (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Dirks, Tim (Updated 2013) History of Sex in Cinema [Online] USA: AMC Available: (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Ebert, Roger (1972, 1995, 2004) Last Tango in Paris [Online] USA: Ebert Digital LLC. Available at:­‐ tango-­‐in-­‐paris-­‐1972 and­‐ movie-­‐last-­‐tango-­‐in-­‐paris-­‐1972 (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Entertainment Weekly (2010) The 25 Most Controversial Movies Ever [Online] USA: Entertainment Weekly Incorporated. Available at:,,1202224_4,00.html (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Fear, David and Rothkopf, Joshua and Uhlich, Keith. (2011) The 50 most controversial films ever [Online] USA: Time Out New York. Available at:­‐50-­‐most-­‐controversial-­‐ movies-­‐ever (Accessed 02/03/2014)

History Channel (2014) Ask Steve: Generation Gap [Online] USA: A+E Networks Digital. Available at:­‐steve-­‐generation-­‐gap (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Internet Movie DataBase (2014) Last Tango in Paris: Box Office/Trivia [Online] USA: Available at: (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Jackson, Rebecca (2014) The 1960s: A bibliography [Online] USA: Iowa State University. Available at: (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Kael, Pauline (1972) ‘Last Tango in Paris’ New Yorker Magazine, October 28, 1972. [Online] Available:­‐last-­‐tango-­‐in-­‐paris (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Kinnear, Simon (2012) 50 Most Controversial Movies of All Time [Online] UK: Future PLC. Available at:­‐ most-­‐controversial-­‐movies-­‐of-­‐all-­‐time/last-­‐tango-­‐in-­‐paris-­‐1972 (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Last Tango in Paris (1972) Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci [Film] Italy, France: Metro Goldwyn-­‐Mayer (MGM)

Malcolm, Derek (2000) Century of Films: Last Tango in Paris’ The Guardian Thursday 14 September 2000 [Online] Available at:http://www.thcom/film/Century_Of_Films/Story/0,4135,3683 19,00.html (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Motion Picture Association of America (2013) What each rating means [Online] USA: Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. Available at:­‐each-­ rating-­‐means (Accessed 02/03/2014)

Phipps, Keith (2011) Last Tango in Paris [Online] USA: Audio Visual Club, Onion Incorporated. Available at:­‐ tango-­‐in-­‐paris-­‐52877 (Accessed 02/03/2014)

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) Directed by Slavoj Zizek [Documentary DVD, 150min] Amoeba Film, Kasander Film Company, Lone Star Productions and Mischief Films.

The Sixties -­‐ The Years That Shaped a Generation (2005) Directed by David Davis [Documentary DVD, 120min] PBS.

The Telegraph, Culture (2014) The ten most controversial films in cinema [Online] UK: Telegraph Media Group Limited. Available at:­‐ten-­‐most-­‐controversial-­‐films-­‐in-­‐cinema.html (Accessed 02/03/2014)

This film is not yet rated (2006) Directed by Kirby Dick [Documentary DVD, 98min] IFC TV uncut.

Illustrations: all illustrations created for this paper by Kitty Bertenshaw. Image copyright remains with the artist.