R.I.P Nicolas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci
How apt that 90-year-old Nicolas Roeg and 77-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci passed away this weekend within days of each other, although they couldn’t be further apart in style and tone. A chilly meditation like The Man Who Fell to Earth is worlds away from the sumptuous sweep of The Last Emperor. The psychoanalytic Roeg fractured films like broken glass, while the sociopolitical Bertolucci polished their subversive surfaces until they sparkled. But damn if they didn’t nail how to portray nailing.
Both of them made arguably the two most infamous sex scenes of the ’70s. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie writhed in bed with such raw enthusiasm in Roeg’s creepy thriller Don’t Look Now that people were convinced it was real (the actors denied it). And the butter sodomy that Marlon Brando inflicted on Maria Schneider in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was still scandalizing Twitter as recently as two years ago.
These sex scenes have lingered for decades because they were about more than just sex. They weren’t exploitative, they were essential parts of the narrative. Just like in the real world, memorable sex is memorable because there’s context. It’s defining. And that goes for the good, the bad, and the ugly. For Sutherland and Christie, sex is a natural extension of their relationship. And that relationship is tested by the untimely demise of their daughter. Last Tango is all despair and carnal oblivion. Brando radiates resentment and hatred, because he can’t stand losing his wife. Sex and death are intertwined.
Watch Roeg’s Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession and you’ll see Art Garfunkel tortured by his love, and lust, for Theresa Russell. Look at Bettolucci’s 1900 and watch a whore hilariously sitting between Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu, giving them simultaneous hand jobs. (No stunt doubles back then, by the way.) These moments feel authentic, and make the characters more relatable, more indelible.
What’s missing from the movies of masters like Roeg and Bertolucci is a Millennial detachment, that ironic inflection that makes the sex in TV shows like Girls so unappetizing. That approach feels like a pose, like provocation disguised as revelation. Nowadays, our yin-yang pop culture embraces both PornHub and incel Marvel movies. Sex is either something gonzo and extreme, or it’s awkwardly referenced if not completely ignored. But life doesn’t work that way. And our hapless 21st century entertainment seems utterly unable to reflect sexual reality.
Roeg and Bertolucci were comfortable with sexuality. They enjoyed it, but they also saw how much it informed their own lives, as well as their cinematic portraits of life. Sex sells. But sincere depictions of sex are priceless.