Screen sex and MeToo: Have we had our Last Tango with filmic freedom?
Good sex scenes also tell stories, and we’d do well to keep an eye on our new inclination towards censorship
When Philip Roth died in May a publisher friend of mine admitted, a little sheepishly, that she was sad because from now on it would be impossible to publish books like his again.
Portnoy’s Complaint felt impolitic – even more so now. Her sadness wasn’t an expression of nostalgia (people can still read Roth whenever they like), it was more: in the future, we’ll never know how men think about sex because they won’t be allowed to say.
Readers will be quick to note that men have gone on record with their thoughts about sex for a couple of millennia, and that there is no shortage of material to consult. But the point is not the redress – a multiplicity of perspectives is incontrovertibly desirable; it’s the vow of silence.
It’s worth pausing over the fact that when two very dissimilar titans of cinema died this week, they were linked because they were also the male authors of two of the most famous sex scenes in the movies. What are we to make, in the Time’s Up era, of those much-discussed moments in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now? Though produced within a year of each other (in 1972 and 1973, respectively), they tell stories of human interactions so distinct from one another that it’s hard to imagine natural grounds for comparison.
Except that they are both built on grief. Don’t Look Now is about a married couple (played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) whose young daughter has drowned. The famous sex scene, which takes place in a hotel in Venice, is tender, melancholy and intercut with its immediate aftermath, in which they dress and leave for dinner. By contrast, the sex in Last Tango in Paris begins brutally and anonymously and continues as advertised, until the man (Marlon Brando) wants to be known, and his renewed advances are violently rejected by the woman (Maria Schneider). The brutality of the sex – seen from the man’s perspective – comes in the wake of his wife’s suicide.
That’s a key detail in any thinking about the depiction of sex after MeToo because although Last Tango is famous for being a film about sex, it’s actually a film about a damaged man, with sex in it. If its male gaze is undeniable, that’s because it corresponds exactly to the story told and its intended point of view.
About 15 years ago a book was published called The Joy of Writing Sex. It’s a guide for fiction writers, and is designed to show how to write sex scenes – with advice from novelists such as John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. But it contains much less technical instruction than the book after which it’s named, because its main thesis is this: a sex scene has to show the reader something – something about character or something that will move the plot forward. Sex in fiction isn’t an end in itself; it’s part of the language in which something is said.
In life that might be true or not. But in a book if nothing is said it has to be not said for a reason. Well-written gratuitous sex is telling us something about the people engaged in it; gratuitous writing about sex is pointless.
The same principle applies to film. Not everyone will be amused by the submissive sex in Secretary, or can bear to watch The Piano Teacher. But there’s no denying that they are stories about self-harm told through sex. If Roeg and Bertolucci are known for their sex scenes it’s because they’re known for their storytelling. The scenes exist in context – if they didn’t, they’d be porn. And in these two particular films, the sex scenes are there to indicate the difficulty of the rest of what is going on.
There are narratives in pornography, too, of course, but they tend to be fairly restricted. Part of the purpose is to obviate the need for a wider story, and its attendant complication. In a good cinematic sex scene, the lives of the characters infect the detail. I have yet to investigate whether a porn video exists in which the characters have sex on top of a copy of The New York Review of Books, but my hunch is that there isn’t one.
In Don’t Look Now, only the soundtrack masks the rustle of the literary journal beneath their naked bodies.
Equally distinct in these two films is the power dynamic between the protagonists. In Don’t Look Now, there is an enormous equality of feeling. That’s what is expressed in the scene – the couple’s shared grief, their mutual need for consolation, their love for each other. In Last Tango in Paris, the power lies – for most of the film – with the man.
After the death of Schneider, an interview surfaced in which Bertolucci spoke about the methods he employed when filming the infamous “butter scene”. In that scene, Brando forces himself on Schneider – she shouts: “No! No!” emphatically – and has anal sex with her, using butter as a lubricant. There is no grey area: Schneider’s character, who has turned up at the flat for a tryst with him, is angry and cries throughout. When it was made, the sex was simulated, but Schneider, who was 19 at the time, always said she felt manipulated by Bertolucci.
In the interview that came to light, he admitted he hadn’t told her what was about to take place because he wanted to film her immediate response. He said he had always felt guilty. But what happens behind the scenes and what’s depicted on screen are not to be conflated. Nasty stories can be told happily, and empowering tales can be produced with ill-treatment.
The examples I’ve used here were made by men. As more women are behind the lens, perspectives will proliferate. In the meantime, we’d do well to keep an eye on our own inclination towards censorship; filling the world with things not-to-know, not-to-say, not-to-understand runs counter to the purpose of acts of imagination.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited