Welcome back! For Day 6 of our Marlon Brando spotlight series, we’ll be talking about the racy, NC-17 film from director Bernardo Bertolucci: Last Tango in Paris (1972).
You may be wondering why a movie we’ve named as one of Brando’s 7 most essential would garner a measly two-star rating from me (which is a fair question). In my defense, I found this film is incredibly difficult to rate. I think it deserves to be included in the list for its sheer infamy, and because Brando’s acting really does sear itself onto the back of your brain here. AND YET.
I have to be honest– I kind of hate this movie. Hate may be too strong a word, but I just…don’t get its appeal. Yes, I understand that Bertolucci is known for his raw, voyeuristic shooting style, and that there’s something to be said for the uniqueness and gutsiness of the concept. I can even appreciate the artfulness of it (though whether it is “high art” or “low art”, I am still unsure). But, those things aside, it’s just gross. Not in a prudish, “gasp, they’re naked!” kind of way, either; it’s legitimately disturbing. Unspeakable, butter-related moments aside (I don’t know if I can even bring myself to comment directly on that), the relationship between Paul and Jeanne is just plain abusive. Brando, as usual, gives a bold performance filled with gravitas and gusto, but I loathe his character.
But let me back up. Paul (Brando), an American expatriate living in Paris, finds himself swimming in rage and confusion after the tragic suicide of his wife, Rosa. She’s left him utterly alone, struggling with the knowledge of her previous affair with a man living in their hotel. They seem to have had, at best, an unconventional marriage, but in the wake of Rosa’s death, Paul is so shaken that he seems to blame all of womankind for his wife’s transgressions. This is one of the aspects I do appreciate about Last Tango— Brando pours himself into the role, as he always does, and it’s really quite chilling. Excuse for his actions or not, this is a sad, sad person. It is at this point, during the height of his depression, that Paul encounters a young Parisienne (about 25 years his junior), Jeanne, with whom he strikes up an immediate, carnal relationship.
I have to admit, Brando still looks great in this movie, despite pushing 50 and being so much older than his female co-star (Maria Schneider). At first, you can understand why Jeanne would be magnetically attracted to Paul– he’s sexy, he’s mysterious, and then there’s the Florence Nightingale-flavored desire to be the balm for his tortured soul. So, I get it. I really do. BUT it’s at this point that the film starts to lose me.
By the way, Jeanne is engaged to an extremely goofy, aspiring filmmaker. I don’t even remember what his name is, and I’m not going to bother looking it up because he’s such a blip on the plot radar. Clearly, he’s the kind of weak romantic rival that is supposed to make us sympathetic to the fact that she’s cheating on him with Brando. “Who wouldn’t?”, they imply. “His biceps are so scrawny!”, says Bertolucci.
At any rate, it’s just awkward. Whatshisname is shooting some kind of strange, ambiguous biopic about Jeanne– an idea which she could not be less into. There are so many scenes where he’s chasing her around a shrubbery, or dramatically following her as she traipses, listless, through an empty apartment. To me, the movie could have easily been solely about Jeanne and Paul (there is more than enough conflict to spare), and The Fiancé wouldn’t have been needed at all. But, I digress.
As Jeanne silently confronts her sexual dissatisfaction with Monsieur Filmmaker, she is presented with his polar opposite in Paul/Brando. The perhaps too-virile Paul tells her repeatedly that their relationship will based exclusively on sex. They will meet in this dingy apartment, they will hop on the good foot and do the bad thing, and they will UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES reveal their names, or anything personal, to each other. It’s hypocrisy at its finest, because 20 seconds after shrieking at Jeanne for accidentally mentioning something about HER childhood, Paul launches into a five-minute monologue about his OWN childhood. He yells at her, he shoves her naked body onto the revolting mattress; he so clearly uses her as a physical outlet for his own pain. He doesn’t want to hear what she has to say, he doesn’t want to venture outside the apartment together, but he DOES want her available to serve as the vessel for his every perverted whim. He violently curses at her, and rape is a regular occurrence in their “relationship”. It’s disgusting and inexcusable, no matter what personal turmoil he’s going through.
Bertolucci tries to counter these horrifying scenes of abuse with bizarre moments of levity: Brando and Schneider cackle and caper around the room like patients of an insane asylum. They make zoo animal noises to each other, and we get the distinct sense that it’s supposed to be funny and heartwarming. Maybe it is for some, but it didn’t land at all for me– it just comes across as weird and uncomfortable.
So…I don’t know. I don’t know what to do with this movie. Robert Pattinson cited Last Tango in Paris as one of the films he repeatedly watched to get into the role of Edward for the Twilight series, and to that I say: You would. Before I watched this movie, I just thought he was being pretentious, but now that I’ve seen it all I can do is laugh nervously to myself.
What are your thoughts about Last Tango? Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love for you to let me know in the comments below.
Tomorrow, we will be closing out our Brando spotlight series with a review from Micah on the wartime classic, Apocalypse Now (1979). Be sure to check that one out, and stay tuned for more Spotlight Classics at ItsJustAwesome.com!!