Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is the story of a man and a woman in a room trying to find a way to break free, and instead only discovering new ways to hurt each other. The film premièred at the New York Film Festival in 1972, an event Pauline Kael famously likened to the première of Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring.” And while no riots broke out, the ensuing discussion of the film must have made it seem as monumental a moment, at least for a while. Here was a film that presented sexuality frankly and openly, pubic hair and all, in an era when even Playboy had only recently, and reluctantly, started to move below the waist. And Last Tango did it in a way no serious film had really attempted before. Given Vittorio Storaro’s lush photography and Gato Barbieri’s rich jazz score, there was no mistaking it for anything but art, however loud the inevitable accusations of obscenity that followed.
Marlon Brando plays half the central couple, a 45-year-old American in Paris reeling from the suicide of his French wife. We first see him wandering the streets in the grips of some inexpressible agony, which he channels into an affair with a 20-year-old Parisian played by Maria Schneider. Both consider taking a vacant flat, a dilapidated but well-situated space overlooking the city. When they’re alone in the apartment together, Schneider yields to Brando’s advances in spite of—or, just as likely, because of—her marriage-bound relationship with a young filmmaker played by François Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Léaud. They agree to enter an affair with no names and no limits, driven only by the passion they stir in the room and with a tone set by Brando’s insistence that animal-like grunts have more truth than words. The apartment becomes a place of nothingness, a zone with no room for the niceties of humanity.
Kael’s review goes on to call the film possibly “the most liberating movie ever made,” but it’s a curious sort of liberation. As the affair continues, its focus shifts to fulfilling Brando’s ever-deepening notions of degradation, the kinds requiring butter, nail clippers, and dead rats, and which often leave Schneider in tears. Yet she keeps returning, running away from the life Léaud scripted for her. Almost literally: Having made her the subject of a television documentary, he commits their love to film. (A stand-in for the movie-mad French New Wave, his character now looks like a harbinger of a whole generation more comfortable living on-camera than off-.) It’s not hard to see how the negation and chaos offered by Brando’s character has some appeal.
As for the film, much of its power hangs on whether viewers can, however reluctantly, see the dark allure of that Paris apartment, an allure generated almost entirely by Brando’s performance. Looking leonine and haggard, Brando plays a man who’s let dark romanticism carry him through life, making pit stops as a boxer, actor, and writer along the way. Now he’s a widower overseeing a hotel frequented by prostitutes. The loss of his wife has left him regarding the world as a sick joke, and he spends the bulk of the movie fumbling to force Schneider to understand the punchline. The film isn’t obscene, but obscenity enters into it as Brando tries to drag Schneider, and by extension, the world around him, into the pit in which he’s fallen. It’s a feat of high-wire acting, bunching all his Method habits into a clenched-fist performance of rage, lust, and loss.
He holds back nothing, and it’s enthralling, but sometimes hard to watch. So is the movie. Like his protagonist, Bertolucci wants to get down to the core of things, and that descent into the primitive sometimes feels as artificial as high-tea table manners. Schneider and Brando’s characters attempt to abandon their humanity, but their sex scenes feel raw and unreal, emptying out into a revelation of emptiness that itself feels a little empty. Like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs the year before, it offers a nihilistic vision of what it means to be human, using sex instead of violence to show the beastly impulses beneath our most refined feelings, and the way the beast within always wins. Brando’s dark clowning and Bertolucci’s unblinking direction make it persuasive in the moment, then curiously ineffective as the screen fades to black. When the spell lifts, the characters’ actions in that shambolic apartment feel closed off from the rest of the world.
Key features: Sans beurre.