by Bosley Crowther
The vast attention that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris received while it was several months in the making and when it opened in the fall of 1972 was not due to the prospect of its being a likely worldshaking film. It was because Marlon Brando was in it, and he was the hottest screen actor alive. With a long string of triumphs behind him, with a lurid reputation in his personal life, and because he had been a huge sensation in The Godfather earlier that year, there was every good reason why the public, not to mention “the industry,” should have been insatiably curious about his next role and whether, as juicily rumored, Last Tango was going to be a superporno film.
Had the picture been no more than responsive to such a show of fan-audience idolatry, it would have happily fulfilled commercial interests and then gone on down the road. But it was more than a mere box-office buster. It was a surprisingly powerful film— much more powerful and significant than many critics were willing to concede. It was not only vivid and engrossing in a cruelly sadistic way, but it said things that were important about human nature and the world in which we live.
The first thing to be made clear about it is that it was not—repeat NOT—pornography, not in any of the usual salacious senses of the word. Yes, it was full of candid explorations and brazen illustrations of sex. Sex was, indeed, the foremost factor in its deep psychological probe. But it was not an erotic picture of the sort that would agitate lust or serve an aphrodisiacal purpose, as every true porno picture should. It was the most devastating denigration of sheer lustfulness that I have seen. If it did anything to one’s libido, man’s or woman’s, it was to turn it off!
It did explicitly tell the story of an aging American male, adrift and lately widowed in Paris, pursuing a young French girl, in a bath of sexual obsession. But it was about so many other things—the erosion of confidence and competence that occupational failure can bring, the tendencies to brutalize women that may surge in a true male chauvinist, the subconscious urge to self-destruction that lurks in today’s frustrated men—that the sexual activity in the foreground was but a clue to the principal character’s real concerns. And the groping of the girl in the story for some sort of discipline and stability was only betrayed by the abandon with which she surrendered herself to an older man.
The first big scene in the picture where the man, Paul, and the girl, Jeanne, accidentally met in an empty apartment which they were separately considering whether to rent, was a crucial hint to the capriciousness and barrenness of their lives. He was obviously defeated and exhausted (though as yet we had not been told why) and she was erratic and restless, open to anything. Thus his sudden assault upon her, after they had barely exchanged a few tart words, and she had unprotestingly submitted to him sexually on the bare floor, was a classic indicator of the impulse of a frustrated man to rape, and her willingness to go along with it was a key to her disgust with herself. For him it was a thrust for a catharsis for what was eating on his mind; for her it was an act of flagellation to rid herself of some hidden sense of guilt.
Next we were given some inklings of their identities although they first agreed privately not to tell each other a thing about themselves (“We’re going to forget everything,’’ he told her)—again a clue to his impulse to isolate himself. He had been rendered a widower only a few hours before by his wife, the proprietress of a sleazy hotel, who mysteriously cut her throat. (There was, for a while, a slight suspicion that he might have killed her himself.) He, an ex-actor, ex-boxer, ex-journalist, and now expatriate, had been living off his wife for the past few years. And the girl, we were shown in a couple of sequences, was engaged to a young French filmmaker from whom she clearly craved intimate attention but only interested him as the subject of a documentary film. Later we were to learn that she had been devoted to her father, an army colonel killed in Algiers, and that his loss and the memories of her childhood were painfully on her mind.
But when she began to try to tell this to Paul in one of their continuing rendezvous, he cut her off sharply and rudely. “What a steaming pile of horseshit!’’ he exclaimed, but casually proceeded to tell her about his unhappy boyhood in the United States, thus revealing his passion for self-pity and his parallel lack of genuine interest in the girl.
And then, as their meetings grew more frequent and Jeanne seemed to be falling in love, he became progressively more brutal, forced her to commit sodomy, and then reached the final humiliation of compelling her to stick her fingers up his ass, the while abusing her with filthy discourse, such as how he was going to get a pig to fuck her, vomit in her face, and such. She was totally repelled and tried to avoid him thenceforth.
Meanwhile, Paul, in his endeavor to fathom why his wife had killed herself, met with her lover, Marcel, and learned some fascinating things from him. He learned that she had given her lover a bathrobe exactly like one she had given him, that she supplied him with Paul’s brand of whiskey, and that once, in a mystifying fit, she had tried to strip the paper off the walls of Marcel’s bedroom. Significantly, the walls of the bedroom of the wife and Paul were unpapered.
The ultimate revelation of the brutality and selfishness of Paul came in what I consider the most powerful scene in the film—that was when he, in evident anguish, kneeled alone beside the bier on which her body lay and vulgarly, hideously condemned her, calling her all sorts of vile names, demanding to know why she “did it,” professing he didn’t understand, and finally breaking down and weeping in another guilt-ridden display.
Many critics misread completely Paul’s relation with his wife. They deduced from these encounters that he had been betrayed by her and that she, in assuming a lover, had shatteringly disillusioned him; I hold that his discussion with Marcel and his cursing of his wife exposed his contempt for this poor woman and the despair that caused her to turn to another man, to try to re-create her husband, then desolately kill herself. That last scene was for me the solution of the mounting mystery of Paul’s nasty aggressiveness toward women that began in the first big scene.
From here on the course was conclusive. Paul happened to meet Jeanne in the street (at the same spot where he happened to see her the first time, by the way), tried desperately to persuade her to resume a relation with him and then, when she adamantly spurned him, got her to go with him to a cheap tango hall, plied her with champagne and repetitions of his old flashes of charm and wit, took her on the dance floor to tango, stumbled all over his feet, and then, in drunken derision, took down his pants and showed his ass.
For all the despicable aspects of Paul that had been shown up to here, there was something tremendously touching and poignant about Mm in this long scene. Here he was, obviously beaten, a lonely loser at the end of his string, unable to make it with women, contemptuous of them and of himself, but pressing one final endeavor to make this “last tango” count—and failing.
As for Jeanne, the extent of her frustration and compassion was beautifully shown in this scene, too. Her patience with his banter, her efforts to humor him, and her ultimate condescension to take him to her home after his drunken exhibition were a token of what she may have hoped in her brief flush of love for this monster and her sadness at her loss. It was when he made one more endeavor to get her to have sex with him, put on her father’s kepi and postured mockingly in this bourgeois apartment full of mementos of the dead military man, that Jeanne calmly fetched her father’s pistol and put a shot into Paul’s heart. Staggering out to a terrace overlooking the roofs of Paris, he fell dead.
A few critics felt this was a cop-out conclusion for the film. I felt it was brilliantly appropriate and penetratingly ironical. What more was there for this worn-out loser, still trying to work his hurtful pitch, but death and a blank-out explanation by his killer, “I don’t know who he is. He tried to attack me. He was mad”? I feel that Jeanne did him a favor. She may even have been completing the vengeful job that she subconsciously felt like doing in their opening scene.
In light of the ambiguous reputation of Brando and the public’s strong mixed feelings about him, it was no wonder that there were extreme reactions to his performance in this heavily antiheroic role. He was charged with all the weary resentments of his overacting, and so on, that have been heaped upon him ever since his first screen appearance in A Streetcar Named Desire. I thought his work here was excellent. His harboring of evil behind a mask of aging decay and degeneration was so expert, so accurate and intense, that I must say I’ve never seen a stronger symbolization of evil on the screen. Yet his skill at creating a feeling of pity and philosophical grief for this man, so clearly a creature of polluting forces, was irresistible.
And newcomer Maria Schneider was amazingly vibrant, too, in filling her freakish little hippie with all sorts of avid and tender nuances. Credit must go to Bertolucci, who assisted in writing the script and directed for tremendous implications—though it is known that Brando was vastly helpful in improvising many of his scenes, including the great one with the dead wife, and in spontaneously larding his dialogue with vivid Americanese.
The fact that this character was an American came about by chance. The role was originally intended for Jean-Louis Trintignant, until Brando agreed to play it, which was a stroke of fortune, because the American aspect added a startling new dimension to the film. Now this hideous creature became a withering metaphor for the ugly, uncouth, destructive American who has in many minds, especially in Europe, raped and corrupted the postwar world. To have wreaked his nationalized evil on a little French girl was the basest symbolic offense.
But I perceive in this character more than a symbol of the rapacious American. Paul was to me the epitome of a dying and disposable breed—the romantic soldier-of-fortune, the overglorified jock, the cavalier exploiter of women—yes, the male chauvinist pig. And it was interestingly symbolic and appropriate that Bertolucci chose Paris as the place to dispose of this spent image: Paris, the romantic City of Light, the focus of so many vain and foolish sexual fantasies!
Yes, Last Tango in Paris might be found, as time goes on, to mark ironically the fade-out of the Heroic Age of the entertainment screen.
Bosley Crowther, Vintage Films, pp. 223-229