Tuesday 21 May 2019

Declan Lynch: 'Last Tango through time... but sometimes 'notoriety' is just shorthand for 'boring''

Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in a scene from Last Tango in Paris
Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in a scene from Last Tango in Paris
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

With the death of the Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci, we lost a man who played a small but not insignificant part in Irish history - some would specify that it was our cultural or social history but, you know, it's all history.

And the man who made Last Tango In Paris is entitled to throw his hat into the ring there alongside anyone from Fine Gael or Fianna Fail who at the time were mostly engaged in preventing the Irish people from gaining access to the world which Bertolucci and his heathen kind were promising.

I have these distant memories of what it was like to be emerging from childhood, living in that Ireland when Last Tango In Paris and the great controversies it was causing around the world, were like tales from some forbidden kingdom - though strangely enough, my first reaction on hearing of the death of Bertolucci, was to recall these ads for the film in the Westmeath-Offaly Independent, which turned out to be a false memory, because of course the film couldn't be shown in the Ritz cinema in Athlone or any other Ritz in Ireland, because it was banned.

On closer examination of my deeply damaged subconscious, I realise that I must have been thinking of ads for The Godfather, another global sensation of the 1970s starring Marlon Brando, another movie full of dark promises of a more acceptable kind - Brando the mafioso ordering the murders of numerous rivals or associates could be freely enjoyed in the Ritz in Athlone, whereas Brando doing whatever he was doing with Maria Schneider in Last Tango, could not be enjoyed anywhere in Ireland at that time.

But we knew about it, from reading the papers - indeed maybe that is where the false memory came from, this sense that the national newspapers of Ireland were essentially provincial, that they didn't think it was their place to be complaining about censorship or indeed about anything.

And it was such a powerful thing, this absence of Last Tango In Paris, best described by Colm Toibin who wrote of his "pure exhilaration", being in London at the age of 19, and being able to see the notorious film. Ireland used to give you that, with its mania for trying to protect you from anything that was any good. It used to give you that pure exhilaration you felt when you were not in Ireland any more, an exhilaration that my children have never known, because you can get everything in Ireland now.

About 25 years after those ads didn't appear in the paper, I saw Last Tango on television, and I wanted to love it, thinking of all the people who had hated it enough to keep it from us. And it definitely had some kind of mad beauty - but eventually it was just too boring.

It felt like something that was thrown together in a nightclub in the early hours by a few very talented but very drunk people who felt they were good enough not to be bothering themselves greatly with writing things down or anything so laborious. Just let it roll…

And a few years after that, in an interview with Maria Schneider, we discovered that the famous "butter" scene in the film was done in this make-it-up-as-we-go-along spirit, except they hadn't included Schneider in the game. As Bertolucci put it: "The sequence of butter is an idea I had with Marlon the day before shooting. I wanted Maria to react, to be humiliated. I think she hated us both because we did not tell her anything."

As a result of this revelation, Last Tango is now hated by many of the people who would have originally hated the fact that it was banned. Now it is despised in equal measure by those who would see themselves as "sex positive", and those who have always been sex negative.

That would be everyone, I guess.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss