Iconic Spotlight : Last Tango in Paris, by Eva Sereny

Arriving to the set of a Bertolucci film was always a very inspiring experience. I knew, though, that this time and this film would be very different.

Last Tango in Paris starred Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, directed and written by Bernardo Bertolucci. The 1972 film was surrounded by controversy from the minute the production started to film. The erotic-drama received a X-rating and drew various levels of censorship in different cities for its raw and graphic sexual content. However, in cinemas that were able to screen the film, saw cue’s out-the-door. The film still divides critics to this day. Famed writer Pauline Kael wrote; ‘This is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies.’
We were on-location in a small apartment in Paris. After being introduced to Brando by Bertolucci, I went into a small living room where the two of them where sitting on a couch talking to each other. I crept into a corner opposite them, slightly hidden behind an armchair and took a few pictures. I stopped now and then not to disturb them. However, I felt at a certain point that they were talking about me, so I decided to leave.

Marlon Brando

A few moments later, Walter the American publicist, came up to me and said there was a problem. Brando didn’t want to be photographed. ‘Well if that’s the case I’ll leave. There’s no point me staying here.’ Walter starts to stutter ‘. . . no, no, I’d like you to speak to Brando.’ The next day, I knocked on Brando’s door. ‘I believe you have a problem with me taking photographs?” ‘No, no it’s just that I don’t like being photographed without knowing.’ ‘Well that’s the way I work—if you’re not happy with that. Anyway you know that you will be seeing all the contacts.’ Brando goes on to say, ‘I don’t like photographers.’ There was something very considerate about the way he spoke to me, so I calmly explained that it was in those moments when I felt that I often captured the most interesting images. He sympathized with my take and said ‘Well, look, alright.’

A few days on—Walter comes up to me and says Brando wants to see you in his dressing room. The makeup room was adjacent to Brando’s dressing room, so I asked the makeup lady what kind of mood is he in today? ‘Pretty good—he said you were coming.” I knocked and he tells me to sit-down. Shows me with great pride a letter from an American University—that he has been awarded an Honorary degree.

One of the last scenes of the film—the Tango ballroom was taking place in a public Hall called the Wagram, close to the Arc de Triomphe. I was notified on-set that Paris Match, one of the biggest and most important French magazines, wanted to have my shots straight-away, for their 11.00pm deadline of that night!

There was no way I was going to be able to have the images developed and show them to Brando and get his approval. I explained all this to him. All he said was “don’t worry ‘Eva: you make the choice.’ I was able to get Brando’s trust in me and trust my work. What a great feeling!

Extract taken from ‘Through Her Lens’ by Eva Sereny. Signed copies of the publication are available through the Iconic Images Store.

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