I watched this movie last night. The Last Tango in Paris. It’s an old one, 1972. When it came out it was a really big deal. A lot of controversy about the amount of sex and nudity in the film had people protesting and getting all puritan. The director Bernardo Bertolucci was eventually convicted of obscenity and jailed for 4 months and every copy of the film was ordered to be destroyed. Thankfully a few copies escaped and I got to watch Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider rip my heart into shreds last night. I was going to try and explain how it made me feel, what it seemed to be saying, but then I found this review by Roger Ebert from 1972. Roger Ebert really was the king of film review, he succinctly says everything I felt about the film perfectly, and painfully. It’s worth a watch. And if you have Netflix Streaming you have exactly 4 days to watch it until they pull it down too. I suspect they will have the discs still though.
Roger Ebert - October 14, 1972
Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” is one of the great emotional experiences of our time. It’s a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly onlyMarlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?
For the movie is about need; about the terrible hunger that its hero, Paul, feels for the touch of another human heart. He is a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help — and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality.
Bertolucci begins with a story so simple (which is to say, so stripped of any clutter of plot) that there is little room in it for anything but the emotional crisis of his hero. The events that take place in the everyday world are remote to Paul, whose attention is absorbed by the gradual breaking of his heart. The girl, Jeanne, is not a friend and is hardly even a companion; it’s just that because she happens to wander into his life, he uses her as an object of his grief.
The movie begins when Jeanne, who is about to be married, goes apartment-hunting and finds Paul in one of the apartments. It is a big, empty apartment, with a lot of sunlight but curiously little cheer. Paul rapes her, if rape is not too strong a word to describe an act so casually accepted by the girl. He tells her that they will continue to meet there, in the empty apartment, and she agrees.
Why does she agree? From her point of view — which is not a terribly perceptive one — why not? One of the several things this movie is about is how one person, who may be uncommitted and indifferent, nevertheless can at a certain moment become of great importance to another. One of the movie’s strengths comes from the tragic imbalance between Paul’s need and Jeanne’s almost unthinking participation in it. Their difference is so great that it creates tremendous dramatic tension; more, indeed, than if both characters were filled with passion.
They do continue to meet, and at Paul’s insistence they do not exchange names. What has come together in the apartment is almost an elemental force, not a connection of two beings with identities in society. Still, inevitably, the man and the girl do begin to learn about each other. What began, on the man’s part, as totally depersonalized sex develops into a deeper relationship almost to spite him.
We learn about them. He is an American, living in Paris these last several years with a French wife who owned a hotel that is not quite a whorehouse. On the day the movie begins, the wife has committed suicide. We are never quite sure why, although by the time the movie is over we have a few depressing clues.
The girl is young, conscious of her beauty and the developing powers of her body, and is going to marry a young and fairly inane filmmaker. He is making a movie of their life together; a camera crew follows them around as he talks to her and kisses her — for herself or for the movie, she wonders.
The banality of her “real” life has thus set her up for the urgency of the completely artificial experience that has been commanded for her by Paul. She doesn’t know his name, or anything about him, but when he has sex with her it is certainly real; there is a life in that empty room that her fiance, with all of his cinema verite, is probably incapable of imagining.
She finds it difficult, too, because she is a child. A child, because she hasn’t lived long enough and lost often enough to know yet what a heartbreaker the world can be. There are moments in the film when she does actually seem to look into Paul’s soul and half-understand what she sees there, but she pulls back from it; pulls back, finally, all the way — and just when he had come to the point where he was willing to let life have one more chance with him.
A lot has been said about the sex in the film; in fact, “Last Tango in Paris” has become notorious because of its sex. There is a lot of sex in this film — more, probably, than in any other legitimate feature film ever made — but the sex isn’t the point, it’s only the medium of exchange. Paul has somehow been so brutalized by life that there are only a few ways he can still feel.
Sex is one of them, but only if it is debased and depraved — because he is so filled with guilt and self-hate that he chooses these most intimate of activities to hurt himself beyond all possibilities of mere thoughts and words. It is said in some quarters that the sex in the movie is debasing to the girl, but I don’t think it is. She’s almost a bystander, a witness at the scene of the accident. She hasn’t suffered enough, experienced enough, to more than dimly guess at what Paul is doing to himself with her. But Paul knows, and so does Bertolucci; only an idiot would criticize this movie because the girl is so often naked but Paul never is. That’s their relationship.
The movie may not contain Brando’s greatest performance, but it certainly contains his most emotionally overwhelming scene. He comes back to the hotel and confronts his wife’s dead body, laid out in a casket, and he speaks to her with words of absolute hatred — words which, as he says them, become one of the most moving speeches of love I can imagine.
As he weeps, as he attempts to remove her cosmetic death mask (“Look at you! You’re a monument to your mother! You never wore makeup, never wore false eyelashes!”), he makes it absolutely clear why he is the best film actor of all time. He may be a bore, he may be a creep, he may act childish about the Academy Awards — but there is no one else who could have played that scene flat-out, no holds barred, the way he did, and make it work triumphantly.
The girl, Maria Schneider, doesn’t seem to act her role so much as to exude it. On the basis of this movie, indeed, it’s impossible to really say whether she can act or not. That’s not her fault; Bertolucci directs her that way. He wants a character who ultimately does not quite understand the situation she finds herself in; she has to be that way, among other reasons, because the movie’s ending absolutely depends on it. What happens to Paul at the end must seem, in some fundamental way, ridiculous. What the girl does at the end has to seem incomprehensible — not to us; to her.
What is the movie about? What does it all mean? It is about, and means, exactly the same things that Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” was about, and meant. That’s to say that no amount of analysis can extract from either film a rational message. The whole point of both films is that there is a land in the human soul that’s beyond the rational — beyond, even, words to describe it.
Faced with a passage across that land, men make various kinds of accommodations. Some ignore it; some try to avoid it through temporary distractions; some are lucky enough to have the inner resources for a successful journey. But of those who do not, some turn to the most highly charged resources of the body; lacking the mental strength to face crisis and death, they turn on the sexual mechanism, which can at least be depended upon to function, usually.
That’s what the sex is about in this film (and in “Cries and Whispers”). It’s not sex at all (and it’s a million miles from intercourse). It’s just a physical function of the soul’s desperation. Paul in “Last Tango in Paris” has no difficulty in achieving an erection, but the gravest difficulty in achieving a life-affirming reason for one.