The ugly but fairly unsurprising news that the notorious butter fuelled anal scene in Last Tango In Paris was a real sexual assault set me thinking some tiresomely familiar thoughts about realism. I could just get all my feminist rage on about how realism when it comes to sex is demanded of women by men (“Don’t fake it! That’s dishonest and awful!”) yet women’s accounts of real sex – and real rape – are routinely dismissed (“We were both drunk and I thought she was enjoying it/Women don’t really like that sort of thing, you must be a weirdo.”) but this is also about the obsession with ‘keeping it real’ when it’s neither appropriate nor necessary.
There was no need at all for the director and other actor in that scene to assault and traumatize Maria Schneider. They had hired her to act. Why didn’t they just let her act? I’m not that fussed about films anyway, and I have certainly never understood the fuss made about directors when the only films worth watching are ones that started with a writer writing a story. If you let the director run things without a proper story, then not only do you get this type of abuse of actors, but you get incoherent, poorly plotted, bullshit films. Like the Blair Witch Project, another overhyped piece of shit that could have been just as good (OK, it wasn’t any good anyway) without the mistreatment of the actors that the directors were so fucking proud of.
Fiction is fiction. Erotica writers, more than most, are very used to being asked if we’ve ‘really done the stuff we write about’ and, while it’s true that many fiction writers draw on some of their personal experience to improve their stories, we don’t need to have experienced everything that we put our characters through – good or bad. We listen, we observe, we ask questions. We might occasionally watch someone doing the things we want our characters to do. But, not unlike actors, we distill our researches into fuel we can use to tell a story. Many great stories, whether filmed or printed, feature things that it is not possible for a human being to experience (hate to tell you, but Hogwarts isn’t real, nor are alien spaceships, vampires, or time travel), yet writers and sometimes actors or animators portray these elements in ways which move and inspire and scare and delight us.
So let’s not ever, ever, believe that it’s necessary to mistreat actors without their consent to get ‘realistic’ reactions, and let’s remember, when we’re slobbering over ‘great auteurs’ that most of them thought the only scenes where the aforementioned nonconsenting mistreatment was ‘essential’ were the ones involving sexual assaults on women…