Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Last Tango in Paris - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenwriter: Bernardo Bertolucci
Running Time: 127 mins
Certificate: 18
Release Date: Re-Released in select cinemas from July 28th
1972 was the year that Marlon Brando reminded the world why he was considered one of the greatest actors of all time. He returned to the mainstream with his iconic turn as Don Corleone in The Godfather and as Paul in Last Tango in Paris. Paul is like an aged Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire or Terry Malloy from On The Waterfront; the brutish sexuality remains but he has been tainted by life and emotionally betrayed by his wife’s suicide. As E Anne Kaplan noted in ’72, “Both Terry and Stanley, despite their surface toughness and male aggressiveness are essentially good guys. But there is nothing likable about Paul. He is selfish, self-pitying, indulgent and hostile.” Yet Brando’s charm creates an attraction to the masochistic Paul that no other actor could have brought to the role. His emotional intensity and raw nerve is disconcerting; the sequence at his wife’s deathbed is an astounding piece of method acting that was apparently improvised. It would seem that Brando and Bertolucci fell in love with this character, but love was far from present in the film.

The idea was supposedly born of Bertolucci's own sexual fantasies, stating that "he once dreamed of seeing a beautiful nameless woman on the street and having sex with her without ever knowing who she was". The result was a story in which a young woman named Jeanne (Maria Schneider) goes to rent an apartment and finds that it comes complete with a middle-aged man. Within moments Paul and Jeanne, these total strangers, engage in a brief and impulsive sexual encounter.Then, for reasons we must wait to find out, they decide to continue meeting there for regular trysts, agreeing never to ask each other their names or any other personal information.

In 1972 the legendary Pauline Kael, then critic for the New Yorker, called it, “The most powerfully erotic movie ever made…Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?" Unfortunately the Judges at the Italian court in Bologna didn’t enjoy “staring into the ass of death” as much as Kael. All copies of the film were destroyed, Bertolucci’s civil rights were revoked for five years and he was given a four month suspended prison sentence.

Thirty five years later, upon it’s it cinema re-release, the sexually explicit imagery that so enraged the courts naturally seems tame. In the last three years films depicting real sexual intercourse and penetration, such as 9 Songs, Destricted and Shortbus, have passed the censors and caused little uproar. Kael’s labelling of the film as erotic perhaps says more about her than should ever be known. Bertolucci presents a relationship that is completely devoid of passion, their animal rutting is cold and uncomfortable to watch. The rest of the film falls in line with this bleak outlook, it’s a miserable experience peppered with one great performance and tremendous photography.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is next in line for career best praise. The hermetically sealed and identity free apartment where Paul and Jeanne engage in sexual rendezvous is furnished by only a dirty mattress but Storaro fills it with so much more. He utilises a muted palette of decayed greens and pallid greys, the apartment is as rotten as the psyche’s of the characters that inhabit it. His compositions are also flawless. The famous image of Brando and Schneider lying post-coital, their fleshy limbs entwined, bathed in hazy natural light wondering if they could ‘come without touching’ is gorgeous photography. His visually inventive linking of Jeanne and Paul is equally fascinating; even in separate rooms he uses mirrors and distorted perspective to bring them together in the frame. Even throughout Bertolucci’s most ponderous passages Last Tango in Paris is visually engaging.

However, outside of these two master craftsmen at work, the film is a sadist fantasy perpetrated by a manipulative individual. Bertolucci’s treatment of Maria Schneider is evidence of this. Jeanne is an empty vessel, physically and emotionally raped by Paul, controlled by her boyfriend Tom (Jean Pierre Leaud) and ultimately cast aside by Bertolucci. As Roger Ebert accurately surmised “she does what she can with the role, but neither Brando or Bertolucci was nearly as interested in Jeanne as in Paul.” The story goes that the original idea behind the film was that it would revolve around a homosexual relationship but this was ultimately scrapped when the French actor for whom Bertolucci envisaged the idea backed out of production. An interview with Maria Schneider in 2006 echoes this notion. She discusses the butter sodomy scene, noting that it was not in the script but an idea Bertolucci and Brando had on set that morning. Not wanting to upset the Hollywood star and the famous European director, she says, “I did the scene and I cried. I cried real tears during that scene. I was feeling humiliation. Then six or seven years ago I heard that the character I played was supposed to be a boy. That maybe explained it.” With this revelation, maybe the film can still shock after all.

Last Tango in Paris has yet to receive the critical reappraisal that was given Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; the comparison Kael made in her original review. Yet it turns out there was a story of love in amidst the disturbing sexual misconduct, a love between Brando, Bertolucci and the character they created together. In 2004, upon Brando’s death, Bertolucci describes the last conversation they had together. They hadn’t spoken in sixteen years and in the middle of the night they spent hours talking to each other on the phone, sharing stories. Bertolucci recounts, “in the darkness I asked him if he’d ever realised how much I was in love with him.”

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