Sunday, January 13, 2013

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

          Few ’70s films have provoked as much discussion as Last Tango in Paris, for myriad reasons. The movie’s filled with rough sex, leading man Marlon Brando’s performance has been described as everything from juvenile silliness to Method-driven genius, and the opaque storytelling leaves all sorts of room for interpretation. Plus, thanks to the sophisticated images created by director/co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci and master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Last Tango in Paris looks like art of the highest order—so it’s hard to reconcile the film’s elegant sheen with its exploitive nature. Because, make no mistake, Last Tango in Paris exploits leading lady Maria Schneider to an absurd degree. Although Brando never flashes more than a brief glimpse of his derriere, Schneider reveals every inch of her body, often performing scenes wearing nothing but a scarf. On a deeper level, she exposes cringe-inducing vulnerability, especially in the notorious scene of Brando’s character sodomizing Schneider’s character.
          And just as Schneider portrays a sexual plaything, it seems she was a pawn in Bertolucci’s and Brando’s macho mind games. The stench of male ego is everywhere in Last Tango.
          Set in modern-day France, the picture begins with fortysomething American Paul (Brando) screaming in the streets, obviously lost in some sort of private grief. Then pretty young Frenchwoman Jeanne (Schneider) walks by him and continues on her way. Moments later, they both end up examining a vacant apartment. As they haggle over who’s entitled to rent the place, an attraction develops between them, and they have intense sex within moments of meeting each other. Paul then proposes an arrangement—he and Jeanne shall meet in the apartment regularly for trysts, but they won’t share any personal information with each other. As this unusual relationship develops, the movie shows the lovers in their private lives. Paul is a hotel owner whose unfaithful wife just committed suicide, and Jeanne is a confused youth on the verge of marrying a narcissistic filmmaker.
          Paul’s existential crisis is clear, but the reason Jeanne agrees to the illicit relationship is never explained in a satisfactory fashion. That is until one reads about the making of the film, and discovers that the storyline grew out of Bertolucci’s sexual fantasies. Since the film shows Paul tormenting his lover by violating her in painful physical ways and by demanding that she do the same to him—to say nothing of calling her demeaning names and flailing a dead rat in front of her face—Bertolucci’s fantasy life seems a horrific place, or at the very least a realm highly unfriendly to women.
          In fact, were it not for the scenes of Jeanne in her private life, Schneider’s character would come across as little more than a bag of flesh that Brando’s character periodically fucks. That’s because Brando’s performance seethes with egotism. Yes, Paul’s in agony because of betrayal and loss, but he inflicts his pain on everyone in his path, as if he’s the only person who’s ever been hurt by life. Thus, unsuspecting Frenchmen and Frenchwomen are subjected to his tantrums and whining, and viewers of Last Tango in Paris are subjected to nonsense dialogue that reportedly arose from a combination of improvisation and scripting. At one point, Paul advises Jeanne to “go right up in the ass of death to find the womb of fear.” One suspects this stuff meant a lot to Brando (and Bertolucci) while they were in the crucible of artistic creation, but seen from a more rational perspective, certain behavior and dialogue comes off as dross.
          Still, because of the fundamental tension between its cinematic beauty and its narrative ugliness, Last Tango in Paris is a unique statement. And for some, obviously, it’s a powerful one—among other accolades, the movie earned two Oscar nominations, for Bertolucci (Best Direct0r) and Brando (Best Actor). Therefore, it’s impossible to arrive at a full understanding of what ’70s cinema means without investigating the mysteries of this startling picture, which bore an X-rating during its original release. Just beware: You’ll never look at butter the same way again.

Last Tango in Paris: FREAKY


Anonymous said...

Schneider may indeed have been a pawn in the macho mind games of those involved, but peronally if I had a choice I would much rather see every inch of her naked body over Brando's. Although this was made just before he started to gain a massive amout of weight I would think most other viewers would agree.

D said...

The thing that I remember most about Last Tango was the way in whch it was launched with Pauline Kael's astounding review printed across a two full page spread in the the New York Times. It also, while not a reserved seat engagment , had what was called "reserved performances" (meaning it wasn't a continuous 2, 4, 6 showing) ; they marketed the film in such an important way that one simply had to see it.

Unknown said...

Peter Hanson, I admire your take on this one. I have never had the slightest urge to see it, and now I can rest easy that I never shall.