Last Tango in Paris (1972) is perhaps the most talked-about film in cinema history, thanks mainly to a certain scene involving a dairy product. So, what more could I add that hasn’t been said already? OK, here goes…
Bernardo Bertolucci (writer-director) and Marlon Brando (star) stand accused of altering the face of an art form (Pauline Kael did so). Last Tango in Paris was banned in many countries, including the director’s homeland (Italy) as well as Spain and Canada. In England, the anal sex scene had to be shortened – I see this film as a natural progression following the defeat of chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones in the UK censorship case (1960) against D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
France was one of the few countries not to take any censorship action against the film, and I wonder if the French public’s appreciation of the lower instincts of libido and appetite for pornography was satiated to a degree that it wasn’t with Lawrence’s. Hmmm. Mistaking pornography for art, it seems, is a national dilemma for our French friends.
The film cost $1.5 million to make and made $100 million at the box office. It became an all-time art-house classic and confirmed Bertolucci’s genius status. It was released in 1972, soon after his highly acclaimed film The Conformist (1970), and he went on to make the best film ever in 1990, The Sheltering Sky, (see my previous review), just after he had made the award-laden The Last Emperor (1988).
Last Tango in Paris is a story of a middle-aged American hotelier Paul (Brando) who, devastated by the apparent suicide of his estranged wife, embarks on an anonymous sexual affair with a young girl (whom he accidently meets while looking for an apartment) called Jeanne, perhaps as in Jeanne D’Arc (another fruitcake) (Maria Schneider).
Bertolucci wanted a perverted Lolita for the part of Jeanne – after Dominique Sanda and Catherine Deneuve both fell pregnant, he cast the unknown Schneider, who was 20 at the time and showed incredible sensitivity for someone with curly hair. Bertolucci got exactly what he wanted from the young woman – a vixen, a she-devil, a tantalizing temptress capable of emotional murder. She was a ‘child woman’. In her own words: “Growing older is a crime.” The carefully concocted loss of innocence is almost tangible while the couple play out their cruel, torrid, juvenile games during acts of sex.
The perceived exploitation of the young girl by Paul introduced a new dimension to the word depravity. The ‘fille on fire’ concept was born, which was a radical and uncomfortable departure from the femme fatale notion, which prompted prickly moral questions of the film’s male audience.
Bertolucci chose Brando to play Paul after seeing a Francis Bacon painting “of a man in great despair who had the air of total disillusionment”. The role was initially offered to Brigitte Bardot’s lover Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist) who refused it. It is difficult to imagine the role being played by anyone other than the consummate master Brando – his dark, brooding, menacing, deeply melancholy performance, acted out in his unique so called improvised fashion, makes Last Tango.
With the bereavement process easing and some peace of mind returning, Paul realises that shagging someone without knowing their name isn’t perhaps the best of ideas, but also realises that he has fallen in love with this ‘child woman’. He takes her to a tango bar with the aim of introducing some kind of normality in their relationship.
Tango makes good people, or perhaps not in this particular case. Having acquired what she thought she wanted, ie a first name and a declaration of love, Jeanne panics and flees back to her apartment. Paul pursues, proclaiming his death-defying love for her. Death, as it turns out, is just the ticket – Brando’s pained, perplexed look of surprise is a cinematic classic moment; when after shouting out all the words that he thought she wanted to hear, Jeanne pulls out a gun from a drawer and shoots him. Paul dies from the wounds after placing his chewing gum under a rail.
Having been accused of misogyny in my review of The Sheltering Sky, I better end there. Over to you, ladies.
129 mins. (250 mins original cut.) In English and French.