Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/2/04 w/ Additional Edits. (In Memory of Maria Schneider 1952-2011)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci from a screenplay he co-wrote with editor Franco Arcalli. Last Tango in Paris is a psychological drama film set in early 1970s Paris as a middle-aged American named Paul anguished by the suicide of his wife seeking emotional refuge. He meets up with a young Frenchwoman named Jeanne in whom he engages a carnal, sadomasochistic relationship devoid of names, backgrounds, and questions. While Jeanne is finding herself confused in this newfound role and her devotion to her filmmaking boyfriend Tom, Paul uncovers the mysteries of his wife's suicide as it leads to perverse behaviors and tragedy. The film filled with shocking antics and behaviors as well as vulnerable moments that is heartbreaking. While the film is really the mind work of Bertolucci, the film's greatness is led by a vulnerable, charismatic performance from Marlon Brando and an innocent, wandering performance from Maria Schneider. Last Tango in Paris is a harrowing yet mesmerizing erotic drama from Bernardo Bertolucci.
Its early 1970s Paris as a middle-aged American expatriate named Paul (Marlon Brando) is anguished over the recent suicide of his wife Rosa (Veronica Lazar). Watching him in this vulnerable state is a young woman named Jeanne as she looks out for an apartment for herself and her boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud). With Jeanne finding the apartment she was looking for, also searching that apartment was Paul. They engage in talks on who will get the apartment as he decides to engage her sexually in which, he decides to rent the apartment with Jeanne returning to Tom where he's working on a personal film of his own about his relationship with Jeanne.
Tom then meets up with Catherine (Catherine Allegret) as she washes the blood of the room Rosa took her own life. Tom looks where he finds the razor that took her away from him. He later meets up with Rosa's mother (Maria Michi) where he confronts her about why Rosa killed herself. Rosa's mother is confused on why her daughter killed herself as she doesn't know what's going on only to know that Rosa had an affair with a man named Marcel (Massimo Girotti). Jeanne returns to the apartment where she meets with Paul where again, the two engage in sex. While emotions, names, and backgrounds aren't needed for this tryst, Paul and Jeanne talk about a bit of their past. Jeanne refers to the days of her first love and her father, who died in Algeria in the 1950s while Paul talks about his childhood days in the farm and his decision never to return to America.
In her relationship with Tom, Jeanne feels confused while Tom's indulgence as a filmmaker while Jeanne feels it's going nowhere and wants out of his movie. Paul meanwhile confronts Rosa's mother and later, Marcel where he tries to figure out more of his wife's suicide. Marcel doesn't know either where Paul returns to the apartment in which his relationship with Jeanne becomes more outrageous to the point of sadomasochism involving butter. Jeanne wonders if she's becoming an equal part of this relationship or being an object for his damaged emotions. Paul then confronts the dead body of his wife where all of his feelings on her is lashed out on her.
Jeanne shows Tom the apartment where he thinks it's too big while she wonders if the relationship is going somewhere while she's anguished over her tryst with Paul. One day, Paul finally introduces himself fully to Jeanne where Jeanne finds herself intrigued yet uncomfortable by his perverse charm as they go to a tango contest. Paul's perverse behavior becomes too much for Jeanne where Paul's blind devotion would lead to tragedy and exploration.
What makes Last Tango in Paris such an important film isn't in its sexuality or graphic behavior but the psychological aspects of the film itself. While films of sex had been done before in Europe prior to Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci takes it further in graphic detail in when he released it in the U.S. in 1973, it shocked audiences. The film's screenplay is filled with ambiguities where the complex behaviors of its main characters are questionable while things don't get answered till the end. The dialogue between Paul and Jeanne are filled with raw emotions that it comes to the point where they restraint themselves as Bertolucci lets the script guide him into this emotional roller coaster.
If the screenplay brings strength to the story and characters, its Bertolucci's ability as a director that is spellbinding by letting things be improvised or play out in its outrageousness. Bertolucci plays up to the film with subtlety and emotional restraint while belting out these ominous camera close-ups for the heightened emotional scenes. In the more graphic sex scenes, what is shocking isn't what he shows, but what he doesn't show yet the audience know what is happening, including the infamous "butter" scene. It's not that the behavior is carnal and raunchy but the sadomasochistic tone plays up to the film's radical behavior as it still shocks to this day.
Even when he takes a look at Paris, its like the audience is back in time while looking real fresh. Helping Bertolucci in capturing the look of Paris is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro who brings in a lush, colorful tone to the film. Storaro's vast look of light, orange sunny colors in the film's apartment scenes heightened by production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti's intimate production design. If Bertolucci helps bring the look of Paris at is perfection, its Storaro that enhances it by its sunny look and grand, intimacy in the apartment scenes.
One spectacular element to Last Tango in Paris is the film score by Gato Barbieri. With its mix of dreamy, sweeping string arrangements and bebop jazz, the film plays up to the raunchiness of 1970s Paris. Whereas the saxophone plays to the film's sensuality and wild scenes of Paris, the string arrangements gives the film a classic romantic feel though in the more perverse scenes, it intensifies. Clearly this one of the best film scores of the 1970s and every aspiring composer should hear this film for that score.
While the film's supporting cast is small, it plays well in its characters thanks to the actors. Standing out the most are Massimo Girotti, Maria Michi, and Jean-Pierre Leaud. Girotti as Marcel is excellent in a role of what Paul could've been but realized that it wasn't enough. The character of Marcel isn't like most lovers where Girotti just plays the role quietly with Brando watching at ill ease. Maria Michi as Rosa's mother is outstanding where she confronts her son-in-law about her daughter's death in which, he uses her for an outrageous scene where he calls out to the people in an apartment building in English.
Michi's tortured performance is heartbreaking as well as the role of Tom by Jean-Pierre Leaud. Leaud delivers a heartfelt performance as Jeanne's indulgent boyfriend whose aspiration to be a filmmaker takes its toll on their relationship. In many respects, the character of Tom is homage to the filmmakers of the previous decade whose desire was to make personal films, which was relevant throughout the 1970s.
In the role of Jeanne, Maria Schneider delivers a complex, heartbreaking performance. Though she hasn't been heard from since only doing films in France, Schneider's Jeanne is filled with heartbreak complexity as the character wonders if she's a sex object of exploitation or is exploring the perverse world of carnal sex. Schneider carries her performance with grace and vulnerability that is enchanting. Her scenes with Marlon Brando are also powerful as she wasn't afraid to reveal herself physically or emotionally. The two carry out with great chemistry as they seduce the audience with their vulnerability and a lovely if chaotic tango dance scene. Though Schneider will only be remembered for this often overlooked performance, at least it's a role she can be proud to call her own.
The film's greatest performance easily goes to the master thespian of Marlon Brando. Not since his breakthrough performance in A Streetcar Named Desire where Brando delivers a performance filled with ambiguity and humanity. Fresh off his Oscar win for Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 gangster masterpiece The Godfather, Brando proves himself as relevant in Last Tango in Paris. He plays the character as if he was this pathetic, lovelorn horn dog who craves for perverse sex. Brando really plays up to be outrageousness as he improves throughout the film. In the more emotional scenes, he really comes off delivering a performance that lives up to the legend where he breaks hearts while his character is doomed to the end learning about his wife's suicide and his blind ability to love. It's one of Brando's most enchanting performance where since then, he's become an inconsistent actor tarnishing his reputation for unsound methods despite a few great roles from time to time, including Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
For anyone who wants a film of just traditional romance and nice moral issues, this isn't your movie. Last Tango in Paris is clearly one of the greatest films of cinema and the first real sex film that pushes boundaries as sex would later push further through independent films. With Bernardo Bertolucci's grand direction, Vittorio Storaro's vast cinematography, Gato Barbieri's raunchy score, and the enigmatic performances of Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, it's one of the most shocking films that graced mainstream cinema. Today, its still shocking in its behavior and antics, for anyone who enjoy provocative films of sex will indeed find this film as a masterpiece. For anyone interested in European cinema and the work of Bertolucci will find Last Tango in Paris a fine introduction while everyone who is interested in this film should watch out. For anyone wanting to hold an erotic-art film festival should have this film in the list.
Bernardo Bertolucci Films: (La Commare Secca) - (Before the Revolution) - (Partners) - (The Spider's Stratagem) - The Conformist - 1900 - (La Luna) - (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) - (The Last Emperor) - The Sheltering Sky - Little Buddha - Stealing Beauty - (Besieged) - The Dreamers - (Me & You)
© thevoid99 2011