By Tanya Vasundharan
A filmmaker friend once talked breathlessly to me about the German director Werner Herzog’s legendary antics on set. He talked about the notorious love-hate dynamic between Herzog and the actor Klaus Kinski, and his expression was a mixture of incredulous wonder and reverent admiration as he told me about the time Herzog is supposed to have held Kinski at gunpoint on the set of Aguirre: The Wrath of God after the actor threw a tantrum. “He was completely insane. But imagine his level of dedication to cinema, to his vision. That’s real art,” the friend gushed. The notion that film directors, who may well be impressively creative and brilliant in their own right, have the right to exploit and abuse (or at least, can be forgiven for it) because of their artistic vision is all too visible in cinema around the world.
It is exactly the perception that you see Italian film-maker Bernardo Bertolucci propagating as he stands by his appalling act of tricking Maria Schneider, a 19-year-old actor, into an unscripted rape scene in his 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. International media has recently exploded with criticism of Bertolucci and the actor Marlon Brando after a 2013 interview of Bertolucci resurfaced, but this outrage, as Matthew Dessem’s article in Slate accurately points out, is incredibly slow on the uptake given that Schneider was vocal about this incident in a 2007 interview.
Bertolucci bluntly admitted three years ago to having hidden the fact that butter was to be used as a lubricant while Brando simulated raping a writhing and crying Schneider, and said he felt guilty in retrospect but refused to be apologetic. His reason for not feeling regret rests on the assumption that his pursuit of the precise sequence he had conjured up in his mind excuses his manipulation of an actor. It was done after all, in the interest of cinema, in order to get a realistic rather than feigned response: “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel, not to act,” says Bertolucci.
The image of an actor and director conspiring against a young female actor is particularly repelling. But even instances when there is no actual harassment can be disturbing because of the ‘boys’ club’ atmosphere on a film set. Something was very amiss, to say the least, with the dynamic that Jodie Foster described on the set of Taxi Driver (she was 12 at the time, and played a teenage prostitute): “They were very uncomfortable about my character. Nobody knew how to direct me… Scorsese would say something like ‘unzip his fly’ and just start laughing and not know what to do so he would hand it over to Robert De Niro and then Robert would tell me what to do.” But we don’t have to rewind almost 40 years when the ill-treatment of women actors is sadly ubiquitous, as two thought-provoking articles on rape culture and aggressive masculinity in Hollywood argue this week. In India, a close relative, a filmmaker, told me about an instance that took place when he was shooting on a Bollywood set in 2011, when a well-known male actor kissed a female actor without her prior knowledge because he thought it made the scene ‘work well’.
The most enraging thing about Bertolucci, though, is his justification of blatant exploitation with the method acting argument, the school of acting (pioneered by Stanislavsky and famously followed by Brando) in which an actor is entirely immersed in the scene in order to attain emotional identification with the part, is all too familiar. Brando might have been the method acting loyalist through his career, but we certainly don’t see him being subject to non-consensual sexual acts in this film.
Three years ago, the actors Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux opened up about their horrific experiences while filming a 7-minute sex scene on the set of Blue is the Warmest Colour, the 2013 Palme d’Or winning film about a young lesbian couple. Once again, the director Abdellatif Kechiche had not revealed crucial details of the scene because he wanted the scene to appear spontaneous, and the women recount how he insisted that he required their “blind trust” so that it wouldn’t look choreographed. Incidentally, he insisted on the method acting approach in another violent scene which the actors say was shot in an exhausting one-hour take in which they had to hit each other repeatedly, be pushed through glass, and ended up bleeding. Being coerced into accepting physical violence in the name of method acting is something several female actors around the world have spoken about, from Tippi Hendren, who was attacked by real birds (and later had a mental breakdown because of it) on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, to Nandini Krishnan, a Chennai-based theatre actor who wrote earlier this year about being slapped and bruised by a co-actor.
In the case of Blue is the Warmest Colour, Exarchopoulos referred to the director as a tortured – if manipulative – genius. Similar phrasing was used by Mariel Hemmingway to describe Woody Allen, who obsessively stalked her when she was a minor, “Woody Allen was a genius, Woody Allen is a predator,”and the same sentiment was echoed by Hendren, who recently published a memoir in which she details Hitchcock sexually harassing and stalking her. Hendren’s stance was that it was easy enough to separate the abuse she suffered from the film. The trouble with that position, as in the case of Roman Polanski who took years to be tracked down for the rape of a 13-year-old girl, is that people easily forget that the directors are the perpetrators of serious sexual harassment because of their legacies. Kechiche’s brazen assertion that the actors don’t have a right to complain because of the breathtaking success of the film is evidence of this: “How, when you are adored, when you go up on red carpet, when we receive awards, how we can speak of suffering?” he asked in a response to the actors’ allegations.
You can watch Bertolucci recalling having the brainwave with Marlon at breakfast the morning they shot the scene, in a repulsive reminder of how they didn’t spare a thought for Schneider’s suffering: “There was a baguette, there was butter [smile from guy in the audience] and without saying anything, we knew what we wanted” [audience laughs].
Perhaps if there was less of a tendency to idolise these directors’ genius, their impulsive, violent and deeply sexist whims would not be misconstrued as an acceptable flexing of creative license muscle, and be exposed instead for what it really is. When Maria Schneider cried in that scene, her tears were real. This is what Bertolucci and Brando prized. This is what we should remember before we congratulate them for their commitment to real art.
Co-published with Firstpost.