Monday, July 16, 2007


LAST TANGO IN PARIS is a movie whose myths engulf our perceptions of it. For generations of leery teenagers there has been the attraction of the infamous butter-lubricated sodomy scene. For cinephiles, there is the hysterically positive movie review that made Pauline Kael's career. And for chroniclers of the censors' dark arts, there are those missing 9 seconds and the Italian court case.

With the re-release of an uncut version of the film as part of the British Film Institute's Marlon Brando season, we have a chance to move beyond the hype and the reams of coverage and back to the film itself. Shorn of the controversy and the mores of the time, how does LAST TANGO IN PARIS play? The good news is that we really do have one of the great performances of all time. We also have flashes of directorial brilliance. But we also have a grossly self-indulgent film with a rather careless denouement.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci and lead actors Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider create an absolutely courageous and brutal piece of cinema. Its courageousness stems from its complete honesty in dissecting a middle-aged man's traumatic relationship with his dead wife. The scene in which Brando confronts his emotions at the side of his wife's corpse is searing in its intensity and honesty. The scene is brave and raw in a way that one can only imagine Brando truly pulling off.

The movie is brutal in its direct portrayal of the way in which Brando's character, Paul, exorcises his ghosts - namely in a highly-charged erotic relationship with a self-confident younger woman called Jeanne, played by Maria Schneider. The brutality of the relationship is displayed superficially in Brando's harsh treatment of Jeanne and in her submission to his perverse education. In scenes clearly inspired by Sade and Bataille, Paul encourages Jeanne to explore the savage aspects of her sexuality and to break from bourgeois morality. But the brutality plays at a much more sophisticated level. Paul has been deeply traumatised by her relationship with his ex-wife and wants to savagely cut out all emotion from his relationship to Jeanne. He literally wants to brutalise himself. Jeanne is a victim of this as Paul with-holds even his name from her. The tragedy of the situation is that Paul cannot stop himself from developing feelings from Jeanne. But, paradoxically, by brutalising Jeanne, he helps her "grow up" and out of her dependence on him.

LAST TANGO IN PARIS is, then, an intense experience and is carried by the talent and experience of Brando the actor and by the raw performance of Maria Schneider. It is, I think, let down by the director's musings on the nature of cinema and by the denouement. Obviously, I cannot discuss the latter here, but the former strikes me as self-indulgent. Bertolucci clearly identifies with the French New Wave - a movement dominated by French critics turned film-makers. So the role of the artist is of interest to him. Sadly, however, the sub-plot involving Jeanne's fiance - a documentary film-maker, seems like a distraction.

Still, for all that, LAST TANGO is worth watching. But just watch it for the right reasons! For Brando. For DP Vittorio Storaro's delicate use of colour. Those searching for pornography will feel very disappointed. Watching as part of a contemporary audience, I can't help but think how discreet it is!

LAST TANGO IN PARIS was originally released in 1972 and is currently on re-release in the UK. It is also available on DVD.

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