Directed by: Berardo Bertolucci || Produced by: Alberto Grimaldi
Screenplay by: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli, Agnes Varda || Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Massimo Girotti, Veronica Lazar, Maria Michi, Catherine Allegret, Darling Legitimus, Gitt Magrini, Luce Marquand
Music by: Gato Barbieri || Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro || Edited by: Franco Arcalli, Roberto Perpignani || Country: France, Italy || Language: English, French
Running Time: 129 minutes
Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually explicit romantic drama about an American expatriate widower and a young, betrothed Parisian woman shocked audiences with its depiction of sexual violence, kinky fetishes, and honest opinions about the nature of carnal human relationships. Aside from being one of the last great European New Wave films and one of acting phenom Marlon Brando’s finest post-prime performances, Last Tango in Paris (LTP) is also one of the most valuable educational films given its upfront,realistic explanation of how men and women become attracted to (and repulsed by) each other, and the twisted, bizarre dynamic of human sexuality.
The story goes that Brando’s character is a recent widower, his wife having just committed suicide, and both he and his in-laws are still reeling from the tragedy. The exact details and circumstances of the incident are never fully explained, but we get hints here and there of various family and relationship problems, including an affair Brando’s wife was having with a tenant of the apartment they were running. The opposite side of the coin is the female component, played by Maria Schneider, a young, recently engaged French woman who has also been disillusioned by her recent romantic life as her fiance continues to use her as a tool for, not a partner with, his aspiring career as a film director. Her fiance talks at her, not to her, and treats her like a lifeless object while clearly satisfying none of her sexual or emotional needs.
When Brando and Schneider meet in a random flat while searching for new apartments (he to find new property for his in-laws, her to find a suitable place to live with her future husband), they spontaneously begin an anonymous sexual relationship to fulfill their aching emotional and physical needs. Brando insists on “no names, no personal histories, or none of that crap.” The two secret lovers keep their personal lives and relationship scars out of the equation, and the physicality of their sexual encounters fills the inner voids within both characters.
It has long been debated exactly what each character was seeking from this controversial story arc. To me, I would argue Schneider’s character is both mildly insulted and bored by her fiance’s shallow, frivolous antics, and Brando’s dominant, alpha male-charisma and unapologetic, anonymous physical aggression seem exciting and seductive to her. Brando is clearly wounded from his wife’s suicide, which he attributes to his inability to be a “real man,” an adequate husband, and lover; he sees this non-personal, carnal contract with Schneider as a chance to exert his manliness and sexual aggression in an act of contrition for his shortcomings in his previous relationship. In what is easily the most painful, emotionally resonant scene in the movie, Brando sits in front of the funeral arrangement of his wife’s dead body and partially talks to her and to himself. He demands answers for her suicide, calls her vile names, and accuses her of cruelty and callousness, before finally breaking down, asking what went wrong and how he failed everyone around them.
Bertolucci’s portrayal of what many consider to be sexual fantasies and touchy gender politics are forerunners of the modern day cinematic sexual controversies, which include Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), among others. The bulk of LTP’s narrative power is its honesty with regards to sexuality, particularly sexual fantasies that everybody thinks about, but that few ever want to admit or discuss. LTP also confronts the nature of what attracts us in emotional and physical romance. Brando’s masculine assertiveness, confidence, and yes, aggression are incredibly attractive to Schneider, whose youthful beauty and sexual receptivity (prepared for by months, if not years of unfulfilled romance with her fiance) are seductive to him. However, Brando’s cloak of manly charisma and dominance are only skin-deep, for as soon as his aura of confident security and emotional detachment break down, Schneider becomes as disillusioned with him as she was with her fiance, and rejects him. Boys are allowed to cry to their significant others, apparently, but only when they’re dead and unable to emotionally respond.
This cynical attitude to romance, at least romance in its infancy, is the crucial educational value of this film I alluded to earlier. Bertolucci doubles down on this invaluable aura of masculinity and assertive dominance through every scene of sexual tension where Brando and Schneider interact in their secret love-nest. Every scene where Brando is in charge, Bertolucci paints his frames with a soft, colorful, almost fuzzy lighting that informs us we are seeing events from Schneider’s perspective. The bulk of the tale is on Brando’s character, yes, but the moments of carnal seduction are all through Schneider’s eyes. In these scenes of anonymous physicality, Brando is forceful, dominant, and confident — a complete turnaround from every scene we see him in outside the apartment. Brando is physically assertive even without making things physical — he pokes and prods Schneider playfully but never excessively, he teases her, and even maintains his distance when he feels like it. Whenever Schneider begins to talk about personal history, Brando shuts her down. He maintains his masculine presence without ever resorting to gritty details, and this sexy, mysterious aura is what keeps Schneider coming to him rather than the other way around, and almost has her eating out of his hand.
When the situation does finally reverse itself — when Brando’s seductive anonymity breaks down and he starts to chase her — Schneider freaks out and repels him. These final scenes are shot without the near-mystical soft lighting of the seduction scenes earlier in the movie. Bertolucci’s communicates Schneider’s disappointment and Brando’s clumsy pleas for romance through his camera, trading the soft lighting for colder shadows and eerie tracking shots down deserted cobblestone streets. In the final scene, where Brando confronts Schneider, begging to know her name and asking her to marry him, the lighting and awkward angles are at their bluntest and most critical. Schneider, let down now by both her fiance and this previously dashing, seductive stranger, loses all hope and reacts with lethal violence. Her coldness is representative of the aching hollowness and loneliness inside her from her inability to find romantic fulfillment in so many places.
The irony that two emotionally wounded souls were unable to find solace in one another, and in fact deepen the scars in each other, is the opposite message of a much more optimistically minded film like David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012). In the latter film, two emotionally crippled individuals are able to fulfill one another through shared mutual understanding and reconciliation of each other’s suffering. Bertolucci’s film argues the opposite, saying that for one wounded person to find romantic fulfillment, the other person must be emotionally whole and self-sufficient, a rock for the weaker person to cling to and repair themself. Brando initially represents this to Schneider when he plays the part of a mysterious, aggressive, but also calm and confident lover, but once the facade melts away to reveal that it was all, well, just a facade to bury Brando’s own emotional wounds, he represents another emotionally fragile, needy lover — just like Schneider.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Brando and Schneider portray their conflicted, tortured characters at their most brash and confident, but also their most humble and vulnerable. Bertolucci’s camera has an eye for the sexually seductive and captures the carnality of its two leads’ relationship with unforgettable lighting and beautiful tracking shots. The jarring contrast of the coldness of the final sequences speak to the filmmaker’s ability to capture mood with his framing and camera movements, and is mightily impressive.
— However… unlike Brando’s solo personal moments and backstory, much of Schneider’s character-building moments with her talkative, flamboyant boyfriend grow tedious largely because of the latter’s annoying mannerisms.
? You heard me! Take those two fingers of yours and stick ’em up my ass!