Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Bertolucci's tale about sexuality as our basal, instinctive and potentially uncontrollable drive is first and foremost an excursion in debasement for an explosive and unprecedentedly personal Marlon Brando and the equally brave and incredibly impressionable Maria Schneider. Within a simple narrative about an ageing widower and a young searcher, both obstinate and rebellious, Bertolucci created a harrowing and emotionally draining study of indecency and self-abasement. With the rare combination of being crude in essence and intellectual in form, the film creates an overt, animalistic sexual realm and atmosphere that up until 1972 had been completely unheard of. The director's cultivation of anti-purpose (which is not to be confused with purposelessness) gives the film a nihilistic quality, as if Bertulucci does all he can to push us viewers away, much in the same way that Brando's character pushes Jeanne away. If he succeeds, you may come away saner and happier, but hardly richer, because rarely has a film offered so much room for psychological interpretation as Last Tango in Paris does concerning its two protagonists. We're effectively brought into these two characters' mindsets and mental states with brain and gut – one of them destructive, one disillusioned, both unhappy – and the small glimpses of warmth they experience or exhibit are worth their weight in gold; these glimpses almost scream out their need to be savoured. And if Paul and Jeanne fail to do so, Bertolucci's hope is that we might – thereby realising how precious they are in an otherwise cold and godforsaken world.
The performances are beyond comparison to most any other forms of acting, and should be viewed sociologically rather than technically, almost as an expression of authenticism caught on film, bordering on being a precursor to reality television. Brando completely improvised all his lines and invested more in his character than arguably anyone has done before or since. He expresses himself like an artist, not an actor, and his work here is arguably the most personal and disclosing in film history. Even the stories he tells from his childhood are practically identical to stories he told in his autobiography some twenty years later. And Schneider, who started this project as a young, talented actress, let herself be played, almost bullied, by Brando and Bertolucci, but she never lost her integrity, never failed to exhibit an amazing strength of character. She's naked and exposed, but never broken, and her expressive performance almost gets stronger the more she's used and abused. Her ambivalence to her relationship with the Brando character is enhanced by the confusion Brando creates. There's no doubt in my mind that her acting is partly authentic; she was drawn to the enigmatic Brando as much as she was appalled by his character, his intensity, and Bertulocci's script.
Last Tango in Paris can be read as a comment about society, humanity and the times in which it was created. Or it can be seen as a chamber piece between two wounded, destructive souls in desperate search for their true self. Either way it is an opinionated and unrelenting film that should be viewed with a critical but open eye. Both Schneider and Brando had incredibly ambivalent feelings about it for the rest of their lives. This is one of those films that leave a lasting impression – or mark, rather – on everyone who is touched by it.
[Click here for original Norwegian review.]
Jeanne: "Have you been to
Copyright © 10.5.2015 Fredrik Gunerius Fevang