In Last Tango in Paris, Marlon Brando seems not to be acting at all. He inhabits his character, Paul -- a middle-aged American living in Paris -- like a hand in a snugly fitted glove, and he moves through the film as if he's serenely unaware that the camera is on him. His variable moods -- playfulness, detachment, violence, lust, obsessiveness, grief, irrational fury -- are the moods of a real adult's life, and they rule the film's stormy weather. The moments in which Brando is not on-screen are merely pauses that set up his next appearance.
The movie, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, was a succs de scandale on its original release in 1972 because of its realistic depictions of the strange sexual affair that arises between Paul and a round-faced young Parisian woman named Jeanne (Maria Schneider). The movie's sex is graphic but not prurient -- a nice humanistic slant that eludes American moviemakers to this day.
There is nothing sexy about the sex scenes between Paul and Jeanne; they aren't meant to titillate, and they don't. Despite Last Tango's lurid reputation and visual candor, the movie isn't about the way people have sex but about the way they use it to reveal themselves to -- or conceal themselves from -- other people.
During one naked interlude early on, Jeanne asks Paul his name, but he refuses to give it. "I don't have a name," he says. And he starts to grunt at her, like a lively baboon; she responds with a sequence of trills and screeches worthy of a myna bird. The lack of names doesn't matter. Their connection is more basic than that: entwined limbs, subverbal but emotive noises that communicate all they need to know about one other. When they are together, neither of them has a past or a future; they are true existential lovers.
Their first liaison occurs in the vacant apartment they both want, on the rue Jules Verne in a tony neighborhood near the TrocadŽro. Jeanne needs a place to live. Paul needs a refuge, a place to escape to. Unbeknownst to her, his wife, Rose, has recently killed herself by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. Jeanne, meanwhile, has a boyfriend, Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), an energetic young filmmaker who never seems to be without his camera crew.
Paul and Jeanne are going in different directions. An entire life waits for her to live it -- Tom has marriage on the brain -- and for her the affair with Paul is amusing but inconsequential. He, on the other hand, is a broken man, poorly dressed and barbered, dusk falling on his youthful handsomeness; he's one step away from being a bum talking to himself in the Metro.
Yet in the simple communion of flesh, he does manage to relax and play the harmonica, and in between tunes he reminisces about growing up on an American farm with two drunken parents. In this extremely long scene, much of which is shot close from behind Brando's left ear, the cinematic effect is complete; it is like sitting on the edge of the mattress listening to an aging lion who looks very much like Marlon Brando roaming back through his vivid if not joyous memories. It is not like watching a movie at all.
Bertolucci uses Paris in a way that American filmmakers never do. He does not shoehorn the Eiffel Tower into every shot; it appears only once, and incidentally, near the end of the movie. He does not have his lovers boating on the Seine, or sipping Beaujolais at a sidewalk cafe. Instead he has them arguing from opposite Metro platforms as trains rush between them, or running along the hard gray streets under a cold winter sky.
Paris in winter looks almost Central European, harsh and stony, yet it is still the city of light, and the light, even if pale, still penetrates. Bertolucci grooves on translucent glass, whether in bathrooms or kitchens or doorways: The light passes through, but it is softened and made tantalizingly vague. Images pass through, too, but they lose their identity in doing so. They are incomplete.
The movie finds its greatest strength when people are touching one another. When they're talking, they're often doing so from separate rooms, and Bertolucci likes to have the camera moving back and forth between the open doorways, glimpsing characters who cannot glimpse one another -- whose link is purely verbal, and therefore incomplete, even false.
Paul and Jeanne, in particular, have little to discuss. Anonymity greases their sex, and sex gives them the best knowledge they possess of one another. Their most genuine talk is a childlike patter. When she tries to turn their conversations in a serious, adult direction, the entire movie seizes up with anxiety.
The degeneration of their sex foretells the shock that finally separates them -- the rupture along that vast fault between their enormously different lives, which they have briefly and naively bridged by joining their bodies across it. Paul uses a dab of butter to buttfuck her. It is, for him, an act of satisfying domination, a venting of random hostility, the infliction of a pain that controls. She sobs and weeps throughout as he sloppily thrusts away, and her agony excites him that much more.
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