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The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

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The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.

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.



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