This article, originally published February 18, 2015, was updated December 5, 2016. Scroll to the end for the update.

Last week a movie that I haven’t seen, which is evidently terrible, and which is based on a book I haven’t read that is also said to be terrible, came out in theaters and sparked some sort of public discussion (if you can call it that). The film of course is Fifty Shades of Grey, and from the reviews I’ve read it’s apparently a crushing bore, entirely unworthy of the “controversy” surrounding its BDSM scenes and its portrayal of women, sexuality and lustful relationships. While waiting for the Fifty Shades furor to die down I got thinking about another controversial erotic movie, one I have seen and which seems much more worthy of public discussion–even 43 years later–than does the silly goings-on in today’s multiplexes. That film is Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and it’s still very much worth thinking and talking about today.

When it came out in the fall of 1972, Last Tango in Paris triggered a controversy that makes anything associated with Fifty Shades look like kindergarten playground antics. Rated X in the U.S., denounced by reporters, politicians and the National Organization for Women, Last Tango was banned in many countries, censored heavily in the UK, and Bertolucci actually went on trial for obscenity in his home country of Italy. Bertolucci was found guilty, lost his civil rights for five years and a court ordered all copies of the film in Italy to be destroyed, though he secretly kept one. The film was even banned in Canada, a country usually recognized for its openness and laid-back attitude. Not until the modern DVD and streaming-video era have “uncensored” copies of the film become available in most Western countries. The reaction to the film was so ferocious that one can be forgiven for thinking that Last Tango in Paris was in the “liberal” Western world something akin to The Satanic Verses in Islamic countries: a lightning rod of blasphemy, blame and outrage.

Warning: this original 1972 trailer for Last Tango in Paris contains some NSFW images. (I’m sure you’re surprised).

But what is it really about, besides sex? As a story, Last Tango is pretty simple. (Spoilers). A middle-aged American businessman, Paul (Marlon Brando), is in Paris, reeling from the recent suicide of his wife. He decides to rent an apartment in the city and goes to one for let, where by chance he meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider). He coaxes her into having a sexual relationship with him that is entirely physical and anonymous–they don’t even exchange names. Meeting exclusively at the apartment, they have wild sex in various ways. Eventually Paul breaks off the relationship for no reason, but by chance meets Jeanne again on the street and begins sharing personal information about himself. Now suddenly he does want to know her name, but she doesn’t want him anymore. The lack of anonymity has ruined what they had. He won’t take no for an answer, and stalks her. Eventually she ends up shooting him. That’s pretty much it.

Why the controversy? The sex shown on-screen is quite a bit more graphic than audiences were used to seeing in 1972, but that wasn’t the whole story. Many people, men as well as women, felt uncomfortable or threatened by the film. (I did). Its most famous scene involves the Jeanne character being raped anally. This scene was not in the script. Maria Schneider, only 20 when the film was made, later said that she felt violated by both Bertolucci and Brando, and although the scene was faked, she was shocked, horrified and shamed at having done it. The experience changed her profoundly. For the rest of her career she refused to perform in the nude, and worked to improve the working opportunities for women in the film industry. She died in 2011, evidently never having forgiven Bertolucci, though by the end of Brando’s life (he died in 2005) she had a friendly relationship with him.

This famous monologue from Last Tango showcases the intensity of Brando’s performance. Ironically he refused to learn his lines and read entirely from cue cards. (This scene contains no sex, but does have NSFW language).

Although the treatment of Maria Schneider and her character is exploitative, Last Tango in Paris is not pornography–far from it. Bertolucci, a gifted director, put a great deal of artistry and technical expertise into the picture. Many of its visuals deliberately evoke the work of British modernist painter Francis Bacon, whose work sought to portray human figures in raw, uncompromising and uncomfortable terms. It was also a psychological journey for Bertolucci, who has said that the idea came from his own sexual fantasies and fears. Clearly it’s a rumination on power dynamics in sexual relationships. It may also be a comment on the changing sexual mores of the early 1970s, when Western societies were struggling to cope with radical alterations in matters of gender, sexuality, personal and artistic freedom. Interestingly, Last Tango in Paris was originally written about a homosexual relationship; it was changed to a heterosexual one when Bertolucci couldn’t find two male actors that would make it work. It is noteworthy also that the two leads, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, were both bisexual in real life.

This is where Last Tango in Paris differs markedly from something like Fifty Shades of Grey. It portrays exploitation, but it’s about much more than just that. From what I’ve read–without having seen it, which I don’t intend to–Fifty Shades has no message, no real artistry, and nothing broader to say about love (which I’m told is notably absent from the story), sexuality or desire. It speaks from no other human impulse than to titillate or shock–and possibly not even that, since it seems very clear the primary desire behind the picture is a desire to make money. Last Tango in Paris is light-years beyond Fifty Shades in that it really has something to say. You may not like what it says–personally, I don’t like the film very much–but even if you don’t, you can’t imagine Bertolucci approaching it solely or primarily from a desire to get rich off the controversy. Ultimately he did–the film was very successful financially–but I suspect profit is far more primal to the motivation of Fifty Shades‘s creators than to Last Tango‘s.

The soundtrack of Last Tango is well-regarded as a work of modern jazz. Here is the title track. (Totally SFW!)

Last Tango in Paris, therefore, represents a legacy in cinema that has been almost totally squandered. What could have been the opening shout in a long, cross-cultural conversation about sexuality, gender and power in modern Western culture seems to have been little more than a flash in the pan. The later 1970s saw a crop of sexy mainstream pictures like Emmanuelle or Looking For Mr. Goodbar that explored sexuality more or less seriously, but the 1980s gave us worthless trash like Bolero and Nine 1/2 Weeks, which ironically is cited as the main progenitor of the Fifty Shades movie. The age of video porn and eventually YouTube seems to have degraded sexuality in mainstream cinema to a smoking cinder virtually unrecognizable from what it was 45 years ago. And now we’re stuck with Fifty Shades of Grey powering the modern conversation about sexuality in film. This to me is nothing short of appalling. Our culture has gone backwards in its reckoning with sex, not forwards.

It’s ironic, then, that despite being almost 45 years old, Last Tango in Paris is a more relevant cultural statement about sexuality than a movie that opened last week. I don’t like Last Tango in Paris, but given a choice between seeing it again and subjecting myself to Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s no contest there. Even though Brando made the film the same year he made The Godfather and we’re essentially being asked to watch Vito Corleone do erotic nude scenes, even that seems preferable to Fifty Shades.

Update 5 December 2016

Last Tango in Paris is in the news. Not long ago, director Bernardo Bertolucci publicly stated that the infamous “get the butter” scene was deliberately contrived to surprise and shock actress Maria Schneider, so as to obtain a “pure” reaction. The discussion about this–and how actresses continue to be sexually demeaned and harassed in the film industry–has been quite interesting, but I don’t think it changes anything in this article, nor my opinion of the film.

As I state in this article, I don’t like Last Tango in Paris, and I feel threatened by many of its hostile overtones–definitely including the infamous scene. What Bertolucci said last week seems entirely consistent with what Maria Schneider was willing to say about the film before her death; as you recall she never forgave Bertolucci, though she did come to some rapprochement with Brando at the end of his life. Clearly, the exploitation of women for sexual purposes in the film industry is a terrible thing. Power differentials and exploitation is part of the discussion we should be having about sex, but the worthless trash like 50 Shades of Gray that is far more popular than substantive portrayals of sexual issues onscreen (and in literature) is making it difficult to have that conversation.

The poster image for Last Tango in Paris is copyright (C) 1972 by United Artists (presumably), the film’s distributors. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.