Last Tango in Paris is an artistic and emotional rarity, one that sits almost entirely alone in the realm of films dealing with graphic sex in a way where it lends a profound element to the story and the characters. This is a film one must experience and not analyze. It reaches a level of intimate maturity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen.
- Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
- Writer: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli, Agnes Varda
- Cast: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Leaud
Paul (Marlon Brando) is an American in Paris, still emotionally disturbed by his wife’s recent suicide. While in Paris, he seeks an apartment and meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a young Parisian girl with whom he immediately begins an anonymous sexual relationship. Their relationship is not conventional, but it feels as real as any other we might ever expect.
Anyone watching Last Tango in Paris should know going in that this is a highly erotic film. While some of the scenes may be disturbing to watch, rarely does a film approach a sexual affair with the same heightened sense of raw sexual power. There is a very unapologetic honesty to this film, a truly uninhibited approach to its subject matter. It is not surprising that director Bertolucci would apologize to Maria Schneider only after her death, after she had long accused him of robbing her of her youth and image. But while it is unfortunate that anyone’s life would be impacted so negatively as a result of participating in a single film, our concern here is the film itself. While I feel somewhat hesitant to give Bertolucci credit for his courage in making this film, mainly due to the potentially exploitative nature of it, the raw nature of relationship is undeniable. This is a film that few filmmakers would dare to explore and almost no other filmmaker would actually achieve.
What makes Last Tango in Paris transcend being merely an erotic drama is that it features an extremely sophisticated level of artistic filmmaking. The photography is remarkable, providing amazing compositions, and capturing vulnerable emotional and rarely-seen expressions of an almost elemental state of being. The use of slow tracking shots and subtle music provide us with a more sympathetic view of these characters, allowing us to contemplate them without so much as jumping to criticisms. While the acting is impeccable, with a film of such emotional intricacy, the analysis of it seems to almost undermine the totality of what this type of experience can make you feel. I know that I will revisit this film in the future as I get older, as I look forward to better understand the context that life sometimes provides to illuminate the depth of emotion. But nothing will ever take away from my first experience in watching it.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert is absolutely on the mark when he states that Brando is able to “so brutally imply such vulnerability and need”. His review demonstrates his perceptive ability to understand emotional notes while also proving his sharp ability to articulate such intangible qualities in a film. Early in his review he discusses the tragic imbalance between Paul’s need and Jeanne’s “almost unthinking participation in it.” By establishing this difference, he emphasizes how this creates a tension that would be hard to match if both characters had been written to have equal passions. Ebert not only shares his review from watching it in 1972, he then compares his first viewing of this film with one many years later. His most effective point made in retrospect is his realization that it is nearly impossible to recreate the first experience with a film of such emotional depth, since years of analysis make it easier to connect with a film a more cerebral level than with one’s heart.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Last Tango in Paris? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Gospel According to St. Mathew
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris this week, he now has 359 under his belt and 4 films left to go.