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All of which means I agree with you that Schneider’s embodiment of Jeanne is the more captivating of the two central performances here. Her performance isn’t constantly calling attention to itself, nor is it marked by the showy Brandoisms of her costar. Even the tinge of exploitation in Bertolucci’s use of her naked body can’t extinguish the charm and the fire of the actress, nor can the sense that Bertolucci is using her in a different way than he is Brando. (After all, Brando doesn’t even take his pants off for the anal sex scene, a stark contrast to the casual and copious nudity that’s demanded of Schneider.) That Schneider radiates such a fascinating screen presence even in these sometimes tawdry surroundings, even with an underdeveloped and often rather pathetic character to work with, is a testimony to how fantastic she was. She never amassed the largest or most high-profile filmography, but there was always something special about her. In the ’70s and early ’80s, she worked with legendary directors Bertolucci, Antonioni and Rivette, and in Last Tango in Paris, as in The Passenger and Merry-Go-Round, she projected an unstudied sense of self-possession on screen—or the illusion thereof, which amounts to the same thing—that’s very much the opposite of Brando’s mannered, self-conscious acting.

Of course, that very disjunction between the acting styles of the principals is part of what makes the film so compelling to watch. It becomes a part of the tension between the lovers, another sign of the differences that separate them from one another: Paul is brutish and brooding, Jeanne is light and expressive; Paul is vulgar and aggressive while Jeanne is, for the most part, simply acquiescent; Paul replaces his name with animalistic grunts, Jeanne with a series of playful lips-pursed trills. The characters, brought together, are a study in contrasts, so it makes sense that the performances would come from very different places as well.

Last Tango in Paris

JB: Agreed. And while the circumstances by which Paul and Jeanne first get together would seem preposterous even to Austin Powers, it’s to the film’s credit—and to Brando’s and Schneider’s—that from that first kiss onward I never doubt their attraction, curious though it might be. Paul and Jeanne’s relationship, whatever it is, is genuine. Their sex is visceral and emotional. It’s passionate. But what it isn’t, I don’t think, is “erotic,” and that’s the word Kael threw at it, first noting that Last Tango in Paris has a “thrusting, jabbing eroticism” and then reasoning that it “must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.” High praise. And in my mind misplaced praise. Assuming that Kael used “erotic” to mean something in the neighborhood of “arousing sexual desire,” I find that description baffling, because while there is certainly a lot of “thrusting” and “jabbing” in this picture, and depictions of orgasmic relief, for me the prevailing emotion in each of the sexual encounters is excruciating pain. Not physical pain, although maybe that, too, in places. Emotional pain. And there’s never anything sexy or arousing about emotional pain, so far as I can tell.

Of course, that’s me, out there in the audience looking in. And I concede that for all the pain that these characters are going through—pain that motivates their actions—Paul and Jeanne do seem to lose themselves to their sexploits and become overcome by their arousal, at least briefly. That puts even the darkest of sex scenes in Last Tango in Paris in stark contrast with one of 2010’s late releases, Blue Valentine, which in addition to some genuinely erotic moments also features one of the most gruesome episodes of consensual sex I’ve ever seen, precisely because the characters never get beyond their suffering. It’s that way by design, of course; two different films, two different aims. But I bring up Blue Valentine anyway because sometimes it takes comparing Last Tango in Paris’s sex scenes to those of other films in order to appreciate what a strange emotional place this film inhabits: thrusting and jabbing with anger and heartbreak and thrusting and jabbing with arousal at the same time. For all of its unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure, I don’t consider Last Tango in Paris an erotic cinematic experience. But do Paul and Jeanne find eroticism within their relationship? Absolutely.

Last Tango in Paris

EH: I don’t consider Last Tango in Paris erotic either—though I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks “go get the butter” is a very sexy come-on—and I agree that Kael was off the mark in praising the film for its eroticism. And while I also agree that Paul and Jeanne “lose themselves to their sexploits,” trying to erase their pain through sex, they also seem intent on causing one another even more pain. The sadistic pleasure they get in hurting one another isn’t even always sexual in nature: one of my favorite nasty little moments is the pixyish expression on Jeanne’s face after she playfully/sadistically tricks Paul into shocking himself with the sparking electrical outlet.

So far, we’ve mostly focused on this central relationship—understandably, since it does dominate the film—but some of the more interesting implications of Last Tango in Paris exist at the fringes of the narrative, beyond the borders of the apartment, in the figure of Tom the manic filmmaker. With this character, Bertolucci is nodding to the French New Wave, which was one of the most important influences on his own career and his own thinking about film. The mere presence of Jean-Pierre Léaud summons the association: he is one of the actors irrevocably linked to the New Wave, as the young star of Truffaut’s debut The 400 Blows, an actor who grew up on camera in that film’s sequels, appeared in Rivette’s Out 1, and starred in some of Godard’s most political cinema of the ’60s. In Last Tango in Paris, Léaud plays a devoted cineaste much like his New Wave directors, a man obsessed with getting everything on film, capturing something authentic through the most artificial means possible. He’s a punchline, with a camera crew following him everywhere, concocting scenarios that are intended to examine race relations and his girlfriend’s past as the daughter of a French colonialist officer, but it’s all phony, a game. He screams at his camera crew for halting filming in a sudden rainstorm—it’s so romantic and photogenic—and then he runs off into the rain, screaming his love’s name, still acting out the big romantic moment even though the cameras have stopped rolling. In another scene, the background music seems to be non-diegetic until Tom abruptly switches off the tape recorder hanging around his neck, which had apparently been playing the music as an accompaniment to a confrontation with Jeanne. This is a guy who carries around his own soundtrack.

Tom is a walking, talking critique of the contrivances and artificiality of filmmaking, and I think also a critique, if perhaps an unwitting one, of Brando’s self-conscious performance style. Tom is obsessed with authenticity, trying to rearrange reality to fit within his frame. He’s always walking around with his hands held up to form a frame around what he sees, an obvious caricature of a pretentious film director, and all his attempts to capture the essence of reality only come out artificial and silly. Though superficially quite different from Paul—who claims to want to avoid the truth, not discover it—Tom winds up being very much like his counterpart, another character who’s hiding from reality, even while claiming to seek it. In his case, he hides in the cinema, like the characters in Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers, who hole themselves up in an apartment and immerse themselves in films and sex in order to blot out the political turmoil of May 1968 in Paris. Last Tango in Paris is the same story in coded form: made in France four years after the disillusionment of 1968’s failures, it’s about characters who can’t see past their own emotional and psychological problems, who are solipsistic in the extreme, locking themselves away from everything they can’t face in the outside world.

Bertolucci, though an avowed Communist, seems fairly cynical about the limits of political upheaval. His remarkable New Wave-infused second feature, Before the Revolution, was a portrait of a young man who claimed to want to change the world, but instead retreated into incestuous sex and, eventually, into bourgeois safety and security; seen now, it’s a startling prediction of the disappointments of ’60s idealism, made four years before the “revolution” began and fizzled out in 1968. It’s a familiar story and a familiar theme for Bertolucci, and it’s not difficult to see the self-involved characters of Last Tango in Paris as a further development of this archetype. Paul’s past, as it’s described towards the beginning of the film in a blatant scene of verbal exposition, is the past of an idealist and an adventurer, a world traveler. One imagines him, in his youth, not so different from the well-meaning but aimless young man of Before the Revolution, who desperately declares, towards the end of that film, that “it’s always before the revolution for people like me.” The same goes for people like Paul, whose obviously disappointing life has led him to a dark, hopeless place: to this grimy apartment, to alcohol and angry sex, to the kind of soul-crushing despair he expresses in the film’s first shot, and eventually to the balcony where he meets his pathetic end.

Last Tango in Paris

JB: That’s an interesting take on Paul. I think it works, but I can’t say I ever thought of Paul that way, mainly because I never imagined his roots. Something about his immediate pain obliterates any past he might have had. Was Paul a dreamer? I don’t know. Maybe. But Last Tango in Paris constructs itself in such a way that we can never take Paul at his word. We can’t believe his backstory. One of the film’s great mysteries, in my opinion, is the nature of Paul’s relationship with his wife. Was theirs a close and happy relationship? Paul’s anguish would suggest it was. But the fact of the matter is that Paul’s wife committed suicide, apparently surprising Paul, and before that she had a long-term lover—a tenant in the same building, who Paul’s wife outfitted in a bathrobe to match Paul’s.

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Paul sits beside his wife’s heavily madeup corpse, all laid out for burial, and grasps at loose ends. He wonders if a small collection of knickknacks he discovered in the closet—knickknacks he didn’t know his wife had—could perhaps be an indication that he didn’t know her as well as he thought. He wonders about her lover, who he apparently willingly ignored when his wife was alive, questioning to whom, if either of them, his wife was truly devoted. “For five years I was more a guest in this fucking flophouse than a husband,” he says with anger and assurance. Is Paul lashing out, cursing the soul of his wife for breaking his heart? Certainly that’s part of it, but it’s risky to assume that’s all of it. I’ve always looked at Paul and thought that he had the makings of an absentee husband, and that if his wife often treated him like a tenant it’s because he often treated her like a landlord. Maybe more than a soulmate Paul’s wife was someone who gave an aimless American a place to rest his head each night.

It’s hard to say. Although I still get frustrated when I can see Brando improvising, his performance in the scene in which Paul interrogates his wife’s corpse is his best work in the film. Few actors have ever combined rage and vulnerability as well as Brando, and that’s precisely the combination he brings to that scene. But even more than Brando’s performance, I love the way Bertolucci captures that scene: It begins with Brando’s Paul walking into a dark room and talking into the blackness: “You look ridiculous in that makeup; like a caricature of a whore.” Paul shuts the door behind him, walks through the pitch-blackness, turns on a small bedside lamp and sits down in a chair in the middle of the frame. To the right of Paul is empty shadow. To the left of Paul is a blanket of purple flowers, and, we suspect, his wife’s body. “Fake Ophelia, drowned in a bathtub,” Paul says with disgust, looking toward that blanket of flowers, confirming what’s just beyond view. Now we know the body is there, but Bertolucci is slow to reveal the corpse. Instead Paul begins to talk, criticizing his wife’s appearance, and only then does the camera begin tracking to the right while turning to the left, very slowly revealing his dead wife. By initially limiting our scope of vision to only Paul, Bertolucci ensures that the focus of the scene is Paul’s feelings about the dead woman, and not the dead woman herself. The body is given one clean closeup, perfectly timed with Paul’s desperate attempt to reconcile his wife’s true nature: “I’ll never discover the truth about you,” he says. “Never. I mean, who the hell were you?” It’s a question Bertolucci never resolves.

Last Tango in Paris

EH: That’s definitely Brando’s finest acting moment in this film, an absolutely devastating scene; Brando still doesn’t quite disappear into Paul, but he does tap into this man’s grief in a far deeper sense than he does elsewhere. When he starts wiping off his wife’s lipstick because she never wore it while she was alive, that’s just heartbreaking, and embarrassing, and difficult to watch—exactly as it should be. Paul is desperate to understand his wife Rosa, but of course that’s impossible now—as Bertolucci’s slow unveiling of her impassive corpse emphasizes—and moreover it was likely impossible even when she was alive. That becomes clear in that other great scene, when Paul sits down next to his wife’s lover, both of them downtrodden middle-aged men wearing the same bathrobe, in a room that Rosa deliberately tried to model on the apartment she shared with Paul. How could one ever make sense of something like that?

It’s a pretty bleak portrait of marriage, of course, suggesting that one never really knows or understands another person, even the person one lives with. That’s why Paul deliberately tries to form a relationship with Jeanne in which the possibility of understanding has been taken off the table altogether: even as he’s weeping by Rosa’s bedside, begging for understanding, he’s brusquely cutting Jeanne off anytime she tries to tell him the least thing about herself. He knows: once he learns something, once he gets to know her a little, the illusion that he could eventually understand her completely will return. The film looks on relationships and especially marriage as a trap, and by the end of the film Paul has become ensnared again, seized by that desire to understand, to take this relationship beyond the musty boundaries of the apartment and out into the real world.

Of course, he’s doomed to failure, because Jeanne, like Rosa, isn’t very easy to catch. Which doesn’t stop him or Tom from trying anyway. When Tom proposes to Jeanne, he places a boat’s life preserver around her torso, as though imprisoning her, making her his. She plays along with a smile, but tellingly tosses the life preserver off into the water at the first opportunity, and when it bobs back up a closeup reveals that the name of the boat is L’Atalante, a reference to Jean Vigo’s iconic film of the same name. The central relationship of that film, however, provides a model and a template, not for the relationship between Tom and Jeanne, but between Paul and Jeanne: the brooding boat captain and his wife who increasingly feels imprisoned by his moods and expresses her dissatisfaction by skipping out on him. Relationships are continually depicted here in terms of traps and cages: the elevator cage that leads up to the apartment where Paul and Jeanne have their trysts; the apartment itself, an isolation chamber for the lovers; the life preserver with its implication of constricting marriage (encircling Jeanne like a giant wedding ring). These characters are desperate to escape from such traps and, at the same time, equally desperate to be trapped.

Last Tango in Paris

JB: That’s a perfect way to put it, and I think that brings us to the film’s shocking and yet oddly telegraphed conclusion. After Paul runs up the staircase that spirals around the elevator shaft, circling the caged Jeanne like a great white shark circles a caged diver, he forces his way into Jeanne’s mother’s apartment and in doing so appears to end what until then has been an aggressive, menacing pursuit. Once inside the apartment, Jeanne at first seems less afraid, and Paul is certainly less violent. The edge is off. All the running around has sobered them. And now it’s as if a chase that once seemed dangerous was just another one of their games. First it was “go get the butter,” then it was “get the scissors,” and finally it’s “I’m going to get you,” something like that.

The chase over, Paul relaxes, as if he’s climaxed, and walks nonchalantly through the apartment (“A little old, but full of memories, huh?”) until he spots Jeanne’s father’s military cap, which he dons before giving a playful salute. If he was a shark before, he’s a pussycat now, and he slowly approaches Jeanne, who stands at the dresser, hands concealed in a drawer. We know what’s there, because the gun, not to mention Jeanne’s ability to shoot it, was established much earlier in the film (unnecessarily, I might add). Then Paul takes Jeanne in his arms and delivers a line that in any other film would cause the violins to crescendo: “You ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia, and I found you.” Paul takes a breath and stares into her eyes, as if bracing himself to speak from the deepest part of his soul. “And I love you,” he says, “I want to know your name.”

It’s then that Jeanne pulls the trigger, shooting Paul dead. And the question is, why? Does she fear for her physical safety? Maybe moments before, or long-term, but probably not at the moment she pulls the trigger. Does she fear for her emotional safety? That’s quite likely, because maybe she feels that the only way to move on from Paul, and to move ahead in her marriage with Tom, is for Paul to die. Does she fear for her sanity? That would make sense, too, because throughout the previous tango scene we watched Jeanne’s emotions bouncing from one extreme to the next like the needle of a Richter scale during a major earthquake. But is it possible that Jeanne pulls the trigger because more than anything she fears the truth and considers Paul’s sincere expression of love to be the most perverse and dangerous moment in their relationship? (And if Jeanne is scared of the truth, is that a further indictment of the French New Wave, as represented by Tom, the man she will now marry?) I realize there’s no single explanation for this scene, but I’m curious to know what you think.

Last Tango in Paris

EH: It’s yet another moment where we’re left to wonder what Jeanne is thinking, and any of the motivations you suggest seem plausible for this enigmatic woman. If I had to choose, I’d say that Jeanne is most disturbed by Paul’s flippant appropriation of her father’s military cap. When Paul approaches her in that hat, it’s Jeanne’s opportunity to kill a father who, the film hints, seems to have had a lingering impact on her life and her sexual identity: think of her mother’s very funny line about the enduring erotic charge of her dead husband’s boots, a sexual electricity that has transcended death (“They give me strange shivers,” she says). As we’ve discussed, Jeanne’s psychology isn’t examined as intently as Paul’s, but it’s clear that for her, military power and fatherly authoritarianism and sexual pleasure are all tangled together. Certainly, killing fathers was very much on Bertolucci’s mind at this point. Two years earlier, in 1970, he’d released a twinned pair of films about the often unwelcome power of the father figure: The Conformist, in which Bertolucci cheekily gives an assassination target the real-life Paris address and phone number of the director’s cinematic father Jean-Luc Godard, and The Spider’s Stratagem, in which the mystery of a father’s long-ago death reshapes the life of his son.

There’s another element to this last scene, which is that Jeanne and Paul have switched places by the end of the film. Just as Paul begins to desire a more conventional relationship, Jeanne now wants to avoid personal connection and to maintain the impersonal, anonymous relationship the duo have had thus far. Earlier in the film, Paul cut Jeanne off when she tried to tell him anything about herself, but in this finale she cuts him off—for good. As with Paul and Rosa, the possibility for understanding is now severed. In the film’s very final moments, Jeanne is already concocting her excuse for the murder, practicing the words she’s going to say to paint this as a simple case of self-defense against a man she doesn’t know. There’s a pointed irony to the fact that everything she says is, technically, true: he chased her through the streets, she doesn’t know his name, she doesn’t know him at all. Leaving aside the fact that she spent a few days having sex with him, she really doesn’t know him, and maybe by the end of the film Paul has at last convinced her that that’s a good thing.

Last Tango in Paris

JB: Yes, put another way, maybe by the end Paul has convinced her that sex should just be sex, and not personal. I’m glad you pointed out that Jeanne and Paul have switched places by the end of the film, because that’s one of the movie’s clever surprises: Jeanne disposes of Paul as casually as he first ravaged her in that dingy apartment. It’s an action of impulse. After shooting him, Jeanne concludes her rehearsed alibi by saying that Paul is a “madman,” and while it’s hard to disagree, Jeanne seems sane only by comparison.

Even though I’ve seen the film a few times now, I always find the ending shocking. And by “ending,” I mean everything from the beginning of the tango scene until the credits. The conclusion is so unconventional: no one falls in love, one of them runs screaming for her life, the other one ends up dead, and yet I wouldn’t really consider it an unhappy ending. But in what is a difficult film to pin down, I always end up concluding that its shocking finale feels like the only conceivable destination. And as I let the impact of the final act settle, I find myself wondering who I should feel worst for? Paul, because he loses his wife, falls in love and then gets killed? On paper it would seem like it has to be him, but it isn’t. Jeanne, because she might have been in love with Paul, and now she’s about to settle for a marriage with Tom that’s all about his passions and not about hers? Maybe, but Jeanne disposes of Paul so easily that something tells me she’ll actually forget him. Tom, because, in the parlance of Paul, he doesn’t have a clue about his wife’s true nature? Perhaps, because I find it easy to imagine Tom someday coming home to find Jeanne’s dead body in the bathtub. Or maybe it’s Rosa, because for whatever pain Paul and Jeanne have been in, her pain must have been much worse?

Those are the kinds of questions that make Last Tango in Paris a memorable film, albeit one that’s more interesting to dissect than to experience. I can’t share Kael’s unrestrained enthusiasm for it, but then who could? (And before we go, I’d like to point out that two of the films Kael is most famous for championing, Last Tango in Paris and Robert Altman’s Nashville, are ones that she had the opportunity to review in print several months ahead of their premieres. One could deduce that Kael’s effusiveness might have been a calculated attempt to put herself in the spotlight. Or maybe it’s just coincidence. Anyway ...) When I remember the film, I usually find myself ticking through the sex scenes first, even though the scenes that really move me happen outside the apartment. Is that because the sex scenes have become a part of pop culture taboo with their distinctive nature (butter, scissors, etc.)? Or is it possible that Kael had it right, and the film’s eroticism is more potent than I give it credit for? I’m not sure, but if sex is a coping mechanism for pain and suffering, it seems this film should be remembered for its agony before its sexuality.

Last Tango in Paris

EH: Like you, I don’t share Kael’s rapturous opinion of this film, nor do I buy her proclamations of the film’s revolutionary potential. Last Tango in Paris is a fascinating film, but not quite a great one, and at times I’m not even sure it’s a good one. In the scenes at the tango contest, leading up to the finale, as Paul and Jeanne stagger out onto the dance floor, disrupting the rigid formalism of the dance with their goofy, sloppy antics, I’m not sure how I should feel about these characters. Is Bertolucci mocking the stiff conventions of bourgeois love, as represented by the tango dancers, and upholding the passionate messiness of Jeanne and Paul as an alternative? Certainly, the insert shots of the tango contestants frozen in formalized poses, the women with makeup heavily caked on their faces, seem designed to make the dancers look ridiculous and laughable, like mannequins striking the poses of love without the feeling. Are we supposed to be laughing along with Paul as he mocks the dancers and bares his ass to them? Of course, Paul is just as ridiculous, not so much an icon of rebellion against convention as a pathetic drunk whose antics are more sad than funny.

It’s appropriate that the film ends with its emotions and its messages in a tangle like this. It’s a film that opens with agony and ends with an emotion that’s equally negative but closer to resignation than torment. Last Tango in Paris begins with those grotesque Francis Bacon paintings, and with Paul’s tortured scream, but by the end of the film its emotional color has cooled, reflecting the switch from the angry, emotionally naked Paul to the much more restrained and ambiguous Jeanne. Bertolucci leaves his themes dangling in the end, unresolved and unresolvable, a network of suggestions about marriage, love, sex, pain, psychology and even filmmaking and politics. Last Tango in Paris begins, quite literally, with a scream, but it ends with a whimper.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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