Butter Scene in 'Last Tango in Paris': Offensively Ridiculous

Last Tango in Paris Marlon Brando Maria SchneiderMaria Schneider vs. Bernardo Bertolucci vs. Marlon Brando: Last Tango in Paris Blame Game

After Marlon Brando died in 2004, Maria Schneider watched Last Tango in Paris once again and found it “kitsch.” Watching the infamous butter scene below – in which Schneider's character gets raped with a little butter used as lubricant – one can see why.

The “thrusting, jabbing eroticism” that Pauline Kael found so fascinating in her review of the film will feel erotic only to those who can't spell the word “sex.”

And if Schneider was speaking the truth when she told journalists that Brando was the one who came up with the idea for the butter scene*, then the actor should have asked a body double to perform it in his place. And someone to dub his voice as well, for the dialogue delivery of the soon-to-be two-time Oscar winner sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

Unsurprisingly, both performances feel appallingly stilted – even though Schneider claimed her tears were real.

And to think that something as artificial as this scene remains one of the most indelible film sequences ever made. Not because of the psychology involved (which leaves a lot to be desired), but because of a stick of butter.

The scene feels so phony it's hard to imagine anyone being gripped by it. Did people in the early 1970s lead such rotten sex lives that the butter scene seemed to them even remotely erotic/arousing and/or revoltingly “explicit”?

As an aside, do those people actually know the meaning of the word “explicit”?

So be forewarned: Those who are offended by phony sex scenes involving dairy products, and in which people keep all their clothes on, mumble philosophical gibberish, and cry tears of shame, should definitely not click on the “play” button below.

* Bernardo Bertolucci would later assert that he came up with the idea of using butter during the rape sequence - now generally known as the “butter scene.” That was an impromptu addition, of which Schneider was to purportedly remain unaware of until shooting began.

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19 Comments to Butter Scene in 'Last Tango in Paris': Offensively Ridiculous

  1. george ormondy


  2. RHOmea

    The scene is stilted and uncomfortable by design: in several interviews Bertolucci acknowledged that he and Brando decided not to tell Maria Schneider what Brando was planning and so it was dangerously close to a rape when he grabs her arms it is not fake, she was trying to get away (in UK law today it could be prosecuted as such). the resulting tears were from shock frustration and anger at what just happened. MS was quoted as saying that the scene was horrendous and no one so much as apologized - she claimed the film ruined her career and she was likely right back then. Today she'd get her own reality tv show.

  3. KK

    it's because it's a sodomy scene….

  4. SM

    Well that was crap and pretty rapey if you ask me!

  5. Marco

    Striptease ? Showgirls ? Nine 1/2 weeks ?

  6. santhosh

    can u people say me the sexiest hollywood movie ever in hollywood?

  7. Nancy

    I think Paul is a murderer. He kills his wife after finding out that she betrayed him with Marcel and makes it look like a suicide. Then, coincidentally finds an apartment and a young, attractive and rather nieve woman with whom he has a sexual relationship. Jeanne is a beautiful, young woman without a clue as to who she is and what life is about. Her being an orphan only reiterates the fact that she is estranged not only to her friends and family but disconnected to reality. I agree that the two never actually make love but rather use sex to find solace. Sex is indeed a mechanism - to connect themselves to something in a way each has cannot in their “real” lives.

  8. I just watched Last Tango in Paris for the first time, and found it to be (although far from perfect), a truly emotionally draining experience. That one notorious “butter sex” scene has, I think, clouded what is otherwise a mostly haunting meditation on love, loss, and what it means to be human. How do we deal with grief? How do we deal with the loss of someone we loved? Paul is a man who I think doesn't truly know how to deal with any of that. He uses Jeanne as a catalyst to express his anger, sadness, grief and pain. Is it fair to her? No, it's not. But it's understandable on a basely emotional level. Let's just take one other scene that is much more important than the “butter sex” scene, but much less talked about - the scene in which Paul confronts his dead wife. Look at the anger he at first expresses to her. He blames her for his pain, and he claims she never truly loved him. His anger toward her reaches a boiling point that to me so clearly translates to the way he acts toward Jeanne. His eventual breakdown in tears and expression of love for her makes it more understandable why he finally decides he wants Jeanne in his life as more than just a “thing”. It makes the ending all the more tragic. He has so much pent up emotion that he doesn't know how to express, that he has no idea how to understand. The way he expresses it is through the most visceral of actions: sex. When looking through this lens, I believe the “butter sex” scene becomes no less shocking than the first time Paul has sex with Jeanne, which is bordering on “rape”. I think Roger Ebert is right when he claims the two characters never actually “made love”. Sex is a mechanism here, and Paul uses it as a tool to exploit emotions he can't grapple with. When he is lost emotionally and psychologically, he has but the physical to retreat to.

    I don't believe the film is perfect, but it has more merit than not, and I think if one is willing, it offers some glimpses of some truly human emotions.

  9. Andre

    I'm sure it created a stir when it came out, but I don't know how “explicit” it was as I haven't watched it.
    But that came out in '74 in Italy. (Two years after “Last Tango.”)
    I believe it was shown in the US the following year. Need to look into that.

  10. rick

    what about Swept Away? with Gianncarlo Gianini?

  11. Andre

    I know. Freakish and sad. She was quite young. Only 66.

  12. Scuromondo


    How uncanny that you should happen to mention “I Am Curious Yellow” in your response to my post last week, just hours before the death of Lena Nyman this weekend.

  13. Andre

    Thank you for writing — and for the challenge.

  14. Scuromondo


    Touché! Fine examples, all of them!

  15. Andre


    “Last Tango in Paris” wasn't exactly “mainstream,” but it did eventually become a mainstream box-office hit because of the sensational publicity surrounding its release.
    I'm not sure if anal sex had been shown before outside of, say, a Gerard Damiano production or hardcore gay movies screened only at gay movie houses.
    I know that Pier Paolo Pasolini's “Decameron” (1971) contained sex scenes of various kinds — I've watched it, but it's been a while. Can't recall if there were any anal sex scenes. That one was controversial when it came out as well, but since it didn't feature a Hollywood star like Marlon Brando, it never generated the amount of interest that greeted “Tango.”
    Now, I do recall that anal sex (rape) was implied in David Lean's “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). But only implied.

  16. Andre


    You're absolutely right. I'm neither an “eager student” nor a “well-informed aficionado” of the film medium. But then again…

    I'm assuming you've heard of Gerard Damiano's “Deep Throat” (1972) and “Devil in Miss Jones” (1973), both of which became semi-mainstream blockbusters. *Those* offered explicit portrayals of sex. So, people in the '70s very much knew what “explicit sex” meant. I'm assuming they also performed the act in their homes, cars, offices, parks, subways, much like today's folks.

    Also, Vilgot Sjöman's “I am Curious (Yellow)” came out in 1966. It was shown in the US (after being temporarily seized by customs as “pornography”) in 1969. It became the biggest foreign-language blockbuster in the country. If inflation is taken into account, it remains the no. 1 foreign film on US screens.

    Now, if the essence of “Last Tango” is an anal sex scene involving butter, then, well, there isn't much I can say about that film.

    As for “Citizen Kane,” well, overlapping dialogue was used by Gregory La Cava in “Stage Door” (1937). That's one instance that comes to mind. Jean Renoir used deep focus in “La grande illusion” (1937). You could see ceilings in Michael Curtiz's “The Mad Genius” (1931).

    Even that little glass ball — whatever those are called — was used in Sam Wood's “Kitty Foyle” (1940), which also happened to have its main story told in flashbacks. Have you ever watched “The Power and the Glory” (1933)? I'd suggest you do. You'll find lots and lots of similarities between “Kane” and that William K. Howard film.

    I should add that I'm not denigrating “Citizen Kane,” but most — if not all — of its “innovations” had been done before. And not just once. But most students (and teachers) of film history don't know film history. That has always been a problem, even in the “explicit” 1970s.

    By the way, I'm no fan of “Psycho,” which I find, ahem, “heavy-handed” and “cliched.” And not scary at all. I'd much rather watch Jack Clayton's “The Innocents” (1961), Robert Wise's “The Haunting” (1963), or Jacques Tourneur's “Night of the Demon” (1957). Or F. W. Murnau's “Nosferatu” (1922).

    As for your remark on the “level of sophistication” of today's movies… well, I'd suggest you watch many, MANY more older movies. You'll then realize that most of what's currently getting made isn't sophisticated at all.

  17. Andre


    Update: Lena Nyman, who starred in “I Am Curious (Yellow)” has died. She was 66.


  18. Scuromondo

    To dismiss the ground-breaking representation of sexuality in Last Tango in Paris with blithe statements suggesting that that people in the '70s, “…[don't] know what the word 'explicit' means,” not only displays an ignorance of film history, but also reveals an even broader anthropological naiveté—a condescending assumption that the culture and art of previous eras (even one as recent as the 1970s) only have value in as much as they conform to the culture and art of the present one.

    For any student of film, hearing the essence of Last Tango derided with comparisons to the eroticism and pacing of contemporary films is ill-informed nonsense. It would be comparable to hearing a criticism of Citizen Kane include statements about how the use of flashback, deep focus, and overlapping dialog is no big deal because that is done routinely nowadays. Or to hear a complaint that the portrayal of horror in Psycho is heavy-handed and cliché by today's standards. Or to point-out that the front projection and opto-mechanical technology used in 2001: A Space Odyssey is sorely outdated and inferior to computer generated effects. While all of those statements may have some truth to them, they also betray a contemptuous ignorance of the medium. All of the films mentioned above were milestones in filmmaking. Each one provided essential rungs in the ladder leading up to the current level of sophistication we've grown accustomed to in today's films. Given that this website is a blog that is ostensibly concerned with the medium of film, it is shoking that the reviewer appears to be neither an eager student, nor a well-informed aficionado, of the medium.

  19. Leanne

    I think the reason this scene became so famous is because it was the first time in mainstream cinema that anal sex was portrayed. It's clear he's using the butter to lubricate her, not to just put inside her vagina. We see him on top of her with his clothes on, but it's clear he's penetrating her anally. Considering that this act was still illegal in many parts of the world, and that it was something no one ever talked about (unlike today), I can see why this scene was so remarkable.