The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

Sex isn’t just a setting here the way that, say, ballet is just the setting of Black Swan.

Last Tango in Paris
Photo: United Artists

Ed Howard: The opening titles of Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous 1972 film Last Tango in Paris lay out, in an especially naked way, the themes and aesthetics of the film to come. The titles sequence is backed by two paintings by Francis Bacon, whose work inspired Bertolucci during the filming of Last Tango in Paris: first, on the left half of the screen, an image of a man in a white T-shirt reclining on a red couch, his body contorted and grotesque in contrast to the seeming languor of his posture; then, on the right half of the screen, a woman sitting primly in a wooden chair, her legs awkwardly crossed and her face, like that of the man, a jumble of distorted features. Only at the end of the credits are the two images placed side by side, and the film’s whole story is encompassed by that single gesture: two tortured, haunted, isolated figures placed together as a study of separate lives, separate pains briefly united. The psychological torment suggested by Bacon’s figures—which seem to be writhing, contorting, straining at the stasis of the paintings, all of their internal ugliness written into their bodies and faces—carries over into the rest of the film.

The man in this diptych is Paul (Marlon Brando), an American abroad in Paris, dealing—rather badly—with the very recent suicide of his French wife. The woman in the diptych is Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a French girl who Paul meets in a rotting, trashed apartment where he pulls her into a violent sexual entanglement, an escalating game of debasement and sex-as-conflict. The simple device of preceding the film proper with Bacon’s ugly/provocative figures, with their fleshy pink tones and sprawling ruin, suggests how we should read these characters, and if it wasn’t clear enough already, the film opens with Paul practically in mid-scream, a howl of unrestrained anguish that’s hardly drowned out even by the roaring train passing overhead. It’s tempting to think that Last Tango in Paris is about sex, for obvious reasons, but it’s not really. It’s about pain. The characters—and Bertolucci—simply use sex as a tool to express things that actually have very little to do with sex itself.

Still, there’s no doubt that the sex got—and continues to get—most of the attention. Pauline Kael, in an ecstatic (I’m tempted to say orgasmic) review, praised Bertolucci for bringing eroticism to the movies. (She goes on to make more nuanced arguments, which I’m sure we’ll get to later; I can’t think of another movie that seems as linked to a single critic’s response as this film is with Kael.) Norman Mailer, responding to Kael, said the film would have been better if it’d been more extreme, more sexually explicit, more real: “Brando’s real cock up Schneider’s real vagina would have brought the history of film one huge march closer to the ultimate experience it has promised since its inception.” But that’s missing the point, no? Did Bertolucci bring sex to the cinema with Last Tango in Paris, or is all that sex just a red herring for the film’s real concerns?

Jason Bellamy: Well, “red herring” isn’t the term I’d use, as that suggests Bertolucci is attempting to divert attention away from the film’s “real concerns,” which I don’t think is the case. But I agree with your larger sentiment that Mailer and Kael are missing the point by implying that Last Tango in Paris is somehow about eroticism. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the eroticism of Last Tango in Paris is the 800-pound gorilla that everyone talks about (an apt idiom if for no other reason than because of the memorable scene in which Brando’s Paul makes primate-like grunting sounds). But it’s easy to understand why the film’s sexual imagery gets so much attention. Simply put, the sexuality of Last Tango in Paris is both striking and plentiful. The film isn’t about sex, but the majority of its scenes are sexual in nature, with at least half of the film taking place inside Paul and Jeanne’s sexual hideaway—a dingy apartment that’s essentially one giant bed. Each scene that happens there is sexual, because Paul and Jeanne are either about to do it or lounging in a post-orgasmic haze of having done it (often in states of partial or complete undress), or they’re doing it, and when they do it, their behavior is aggressive and often vulgar—never gentle or sweet. So, not surprisingly, sex dominates the film, at least in memory, and thus tends to dominate the conversation about the film.

But if all the attention paid to Last Tango in Paris’s sexuality is disproportionate to its actual significance within the film, it’s not altogether off base. Sex isn’t just a setting here the way that, say, ballet is just the setting of Black Swan, to recall a film we discussed recently. Bertolucci seems to be examining the role of sexuality in our relationships and our general existence, probing its impact and significance. For me, what the film is “about” comes down to an exchange between Paul and Jeanne early in the film, when he demands that they not call one another by their names or bring the real world into their sexual refuge. Paul demands that they “forget everything” that’s beyond the drawn shades of that apartment. “I can’t,” Jeanne says, “can you?” “I don’t know,” Paul replies, but it’s obvious he sure wants to. Sex is Paul’s means of distraction—some pick alcohol or drugs, and he picks sex—and his extreme behavior with Jeanne in and around their sexual escapades is evidence of the lengths that Paul needs to go to forget.

Last Tango in Paris

EH: You’re right of course, and the sex scenes do dominate the film in retrospect. (Or is that simply a function of how forgettable a lot of the film becomes whenever the camera leaves the apartment? I get the sense that the sex takes up less screen time while watching the film than it does when remembering the film later on; it’s as though everything surrounding the sex fades away as soon as the film stops.) But I think you hit the mark when you say that Paul picks sex from among a menu of distractions, which suggests that the film is about his attempts to erase his humanity in the wake of a tragedy, and that the sex is just a tool towards that end. So is violence, which in some ways seems more important to him than the sex itself, and which manifests itself outside of the apartment as well, when he chases down and beats, for no apparent reason, the prospective john who’d abandoned a prostitute at Paul’s hotel.

You say that Bertolucci is probing the significance of sex, “examining the role of sexuality in our relationships,” but I’m not really convinced. I don’t feel like the film has a whole lot to say about sex—or that it even intends to say very much about sex. Paul uses sex, basically, in the same sense as censors tend to use it: as a form of obscenity. In the monologues he directs at Jeanne, Paul devises complicated sexual/scatological scenarios that simply mash together all sorts of juvenile fixations, spewing out seemingly off-the-cuff rants about farting, defecation, vomiting, bestiality and assorted sexual acts, as though they’re all simply interchangeable elements in his desire to offend, to gross out, to shock. In the same way that the MPAA rating system views sex and violence and curse words as equivalent, just objectionable elements to be weighed and rated—and Last Tango in Paris itself, of course, was distributed in the US with an X rating—Paul just wants to debase himself and Jeanne, and he’ll use sex, violence and language to do it. It’s all just raw material for him, the foundation for his psychodrama of loss and pain. What the film has to say about sex, paradoxically, is that sometimes sex is about everything except the sex itself.

Or maybe what I’m really getting at is that the film is only about one facet of sex. Because certainly obscenity is a part of sex: dirty, nasty, edging across the line from erotic to disgusting or disturbing and then, perhaps, back again. But, as you say, the characters aren’t interested in other types of sex, other uses for sex. There’s little tenderness between them, and whenever Jeanne tries to express a gentler sentiment, she usually prompts some new burst of degradation and absurdity from Paul: his famous speech about farting and vomiting pigs, delivered while Jeanne sticks her fingers up his ass, is triggered by Jeanne’s admission that she loves him. The sex, scatological and aggressive as it is, is only a vehicle, one that Paul, at least, hopes will get him where he wants to go: towards forgetting, as you say, and also forgetting how to be human, erasing all those pesky feelings and replacing them with dirty words and grunting. Of course, the impossibility of this goal is obvious from the beginning, and neither Paul nor Jeanne can help continually betraying hints of their humanity and their feelings.

Last Tango in Paris

JB: That’s right, they can’t, and that’s why I say that Bertolucci is probing the impact and significance of sex. Paul goes into his relationship with Jeanne wanting only sex—sex as distraction, sex as aggression, sex as a coping mechanism. Whenever Jeanne attempts to bring the real world into their refuge, Paul objects—unless Jeanne is talking about sex. Paul and Jeanne keep meeting, keep fucking and keep going their separate ways, with Paul taking measures to assure that they never step back into the real world together (at one point sneaking away from Jeanne as if fleeing a crime scene). Paul and Jeanne see one another only in this fantasy environment, but we get to watch them beyond it, and what I think we see is that the outside world affects who Paul and Jeanne are within the apartment more so than the other way around. Their connection through sex comforts them in the moment, but it does nothing to alter the realities of their lives. Paul is still heartbroken and angry over his wife’s suicide, and Jeanne is still falling in (turbulent) love with her goofy filmmaking boyfriend. I think that’s a statement. The usual approach to this kind of relationship would be to portray Paul and Jeanne sleepwalking through their daily lives, preoccupied with getting back into one another’s arms, but that’s not what happens here. While the pressures of the outside world clearly influence what happens within the apartment, the only indication we have that Paul and Jeanne ever think about one another in their “real” lives is that they keep returning to one another for more.

So, are Paul and Jeanne different people in and out of the apartment? Yes and no. The conclusion is telling: At some point Paul doesn’t show up at the apartment, and Jeanne—who has been the more affectionate of the two, and the more genuinely forthcoming—is devastated. She cries. She asks the woman at the front desk if she knows where Paul lives, seemingly determined to track him down. But when she comes up empty, Jeanne quickly changes course and tries to convince her fiancé that they should move into the apartment that has been her sex nest, as if the atmosphere of the fantasy is more important than the person she fantasized with. When her fiancé refuses, Jeanne forlornly closes up the apartment and leaves it for good, and as she walks away, under the same train tracks where she first passed Paul ranting in the streets, Paul comes up behind her and playfully taps her on the shoulder. He looks liberated, carefree. Jeanne looks furious, scarred. “It’s over,” Jeanne says immediately. And then Paul delivers what I think is the film’s second most significant lines: “That’s right, it’s over and then it begins again … We left the apartment, and now we begin again with love and all the rest of it.”

Paul seems to view the apartment as a kind of purgatory, and having atoned for his sins and purged his demons, he’s now “ready to live normally again,” to “love Jeanne as a person,” to quote Kael. But Paul’s personae in and out of the apartment are more similar than he realizes, which Jeanne learns when Paul spends the conclusion of the film stalking her with the same raving intensity that he displayed when he forced himself on her for anal sex or verbally demeaned her with his graphic fantasies. Inside the apartment, Paul seemed desperate to objectify Jeanne, as if to prove to himself that he could fuck her without care for her feelings (because he worried that his wife fucked him without feeling and he wanted to show he could do it too? because he wanted to convince himself his wife fucked her lover without feelings? because he was simply desperate not to feel? maybe all of the above). But clearly Paul became emotionally involved despite his intentions, or else he wouldn’t be so determined to move forward with “love and all the rest of it.” It’s as if he needs to bring these worlds together, because he can’t survive wholly in one or the other. And Jeanne? We might have expected throughout the film that she was ready to fall in love with Paul in the real world, if only he would allow it, and maybe even Jeanne thought so, too. But it turns out that Jeanne is no more comfortable living with Paul in the real world than she is giving up their sexual oasis. She is a pre-Brokeback Mountain Jack Twist, unable to let go or to commit. “I wanted to leave you, but I couldn’t, I can’t,” Jeanne says earlier in the film, when she arrives at the apartment in her rain-soaked wedding dress. She might as well have said, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

What does this all add up to? Not a whole number, that’s for sure. As Kael puts it, “I don’t believe there’s anyone whose feelings can be totally resolved about the sex scenes and the social attitudes in this film.” Does the film suggest that “sometimes sex is about everything except the sex itself”? Absolutely. But it never denies that sex has an impact.

Last Tango in Paris

EH: I think that last Kael quote gets to the heart of it, although perhaps not quite in the way she intended. Kael implies that the film is so complex, so original in its attitudes and ideas, so shocking in the way it approaches sex and relationships, that it’s impossible to ever fully get a handle on what it’s saying and showing. That’s partly true, for sure. The other part is that it’s often tough to resolve one’s feelings about this film because the film itself is unresolved, and also in some ways rather unsatisfying. In the e-mail you sent me accompanying this latest exchange, you remarked that Last Tango in Paris is more interesting to talk about than it is to watch, and I feel like we really need to bring that idea into the conversation proper because it so perfectly sums up how I feel about this film. It’s a film of bold performances, bold ideas and bold images, and yet there’s also something curiously flat and aimless about so much of it. It was partially improvised, and it feels like it, which works sometimes (as in Paul’s outrageous monologues, in which Paul the character and Brando the actor are both trying to imagine, spontaneously, the most disgusting, disturbing, demeaning things to say) but also contributes to the sense that the film doesn’t entirely add up.

Another element that’s tough to resolve is the gender dynamic that’s at work here. Paul, of course, is brutal towards Jeanne, abusing and demeaning her, taking out on her all the aggression and hatred that he feels towards his wife for cheating on him and for committing a final act that proves how little he understood her. The problem is that while it’s very easy to grasp what Paul is getting out of this relationship with Jeanne, it’s less clear what she’s getting out of it. The film’s gender roles feel very unbalanced. Paul’s pain is so much more well-defined than Jeanne’s: he is suffering from his wife’s suicide, and suffering more generally from his feeling that he never understood his wife, that indeed maybe it’s impossible to ever fully understand another human being. But Jeanne is just saddled with vague and rather clichéd daddy issues, while loitering around with her filmmaker boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in scenes that ultimately say way more about Bertolucci’s fascination with the French New Wave (more on that later) than they ever do about Jeanne. This is very much Paul’s movie, even though Bertolucci has devised a parallel structure that at least purports to follow the two characters’ arcs equally. Jeanne is such a murky character, and part of that is surely purposeful—to show that Paul doesn’t get her any more than he got his wife—but it’s still odd that by the end of the film we have such a complete portrait of Paul while Jeanne remains an enigma, her motivations obscure, her thoughts mostly kept to herself. We see a lot of her body and almost nothing of her soul—an equation that is reversed for Paul.

Last Tango in Paris

JB: I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, and yet one of the things that I find most compelling about Last Tango in Paris is the murkiness of Jeanne, the fact that her motivations are never made clear. Does she have “clichéd daddy issues”? Maybe. Certainly she seems conflicted about her real-world relationship with her boyfriend, who objectifies her more sweetly than Paul but just as completely. Or perhaps she’s attracted to Paul’s brokenness or his lack of varnish. Who knows. All I can tell you is that each time I watch this film I find myself fascinated by Jeanne’s behavior over the final act. The sequence during the tango contest is my favorite in the film, partially because it includes some of the film’s most compelling images but mostly because it allows us to sit back and watch Jeanne wrestling with her emotions. One moment she looks as if she’s going to leave Paul. The next moment it looks as if she’s going to surrender to a depressing existence with him. The moment after that, she falls under his spell again, exudes genuine and complete happiness and love again. And then the moment after that she looks as if she wants to drink herself to death. In a sequence less than 10 minutes long, Jeanne must go through that cycle almost three times, unable to resolve her feelings. And before they leave the dance hall, Jeanne unzips Paul’s pants and gives him a handjob—objectifying herself this time, perhaps in a last ditch effort to conjure the magic of the apartment, or perhaps in the hopes that it will afford her an escape. Of the hermetic apartment environment where Paul and Jeanne have their tryst, Kael wrote, “The necessity for isolation from the world is, of course, his, not hers.” But each time I watch the film’s final act, I wonder if that’s actually true.

But of course you’re right that Last Tango in Paris is more concerned with Paul than Jeanne, even though it seems to imply otherwise. The truth is that Bertolucci uses Jeanne much like Paul does: as a sexual object, delighting in her full breasts while ogling her thick mass of pubic hair. (For all the movies in which naked actresses lounge about on beds with sheets strategically placed to cover up their privates, Bertolucci gives us a scene in which Jeanne stands wrapped with a towel over her shoulders in order to draw attention to her exposed crotch.) But Jeanne captivates in spite of her second-class status thanks to the exuberance of a then-20-year-old Maria Schneider, who died earlier this month at 58. Jeanne is an enigma in this film not only because the movie fails to develop her character but because of Schneider’s magnificent ability to juggle Jeanne’s contradictory emotions. This is Brando’s movie, and in moments he’s as powerful as ever, but on the whole I think Schneider outshines him.

Kael would disagree, of course. She adored Brando in this film, proclaiming that “Paul feels so ‘real’ and the character is brought so close that a new dimension in screen acting has been reached.” She then continued: “I think that if the actor were anyone but Brando many of us would lower our eyes in confusion.” She’s probably right about the second part. And yet what Kael ignores is that the reason it’s hard to imagine any other actor as Paul is because there’s so much of Brando in Paul. Kael argued that Brando needed room to improvise in order to be magical, and I think she might be right about that, too, but when I watch Last Tango in Paris I often feel like I’m watching an actor working rather than a character behaving, and that’s the wrong kind of realism.

Almost 40 years ago, upon the film’s 1972 release, I might have thought otherwise. But post-1979’s Apocalypse Now, and especially in the aftermath of 1991’s Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, Brando’s mechanics are difficult to ignore. In several of the apartment scenes in Last Tango in Paris, Brando gives essentially the same performance he went on to provide as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now—a performance of obscure ramblings seasoned with Brando’s peculiar ability to make an English word sound foreign by means of emphatic enunciation: in this case “cow shit,” “mustard field,” “rabbits,” etc. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen Hearts of Darkness, and thus had never seen footage of a desperate Francis Ford Coppola trying to get Brando to say something, anything, while the cameras are rolling, I might be able to watch Last Tango in Paris and see Paul gleefully experimenting with oddity and vulgarity, trying to see what Jeanne will let him get away with. But instead, as often as not, I see Brando gleefully experimenting with what Bertolucci will let him get away with, while trying to provoke the audience in the theater. When Kael suggested that Brando found a “new dimension in screen acting,” that isn’t what she had in mind.

Last Tango in Paris

EH: I think that’s all very true. Frankly, it’s baffling to me that Kael thinks the film is so shockingly “real,” because to me it’s anything but. The virtues—and the vices—of Last Tango in Paris arise not from its realism but from its very obvious emphasis on acting, its very cinematic conception. Bertolucci, a director who worked out his admiration for the stylistic excesses of the French New Wave throughout the ’60s and then began making heavily stylized, symbolical/psychological films in the ’70s and onward, is not a filmmaker from whom I’d expect raw realism, at least not in the sense that Kael seems to mean it. There’s emotional realism in this film, and in Bertolucci’s other films of course, but it’s certainly not the kind of realism where the filmmaking becomes invisible. Bertolucci’s early flirtation with neorealism as a pupil of Pier Paolo Pasolini didn’t last much beyond his uncharacteristic Pasolini-scripted debut, La Commare Secca, and Last Tango in Paris is anything but a return to realism or naturalism.

Brando, especially, is inseparable from Paul, not in the sense of disappearing into the character, but that the actor has become an integral part of the character. Bertolucci even draws on the actor’s persona and screen history, giving him the white undershirt of Stanley Kowalski and the washed-up boxer’s background of Terry Malloy. It’s very self-consciously Brando up there on the screen, not just Paul. It’s fascinating to watch him anyway, to see how actor and character are layered together, how the process of improvisation keeps burbling up to the surface of the performance—but naturalistic it’s not. The performance works in this context, as you point out and as I suggested before, only because Paul’s motivation as a character and Brando’s motivation as an actor line up so perfectly: just as Paul wants to shock Jeanne, Brando wants to shock the audience.

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.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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