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?