Last Tango in Paris | Review by Pauline Kael

The following review, one of the most renowned in the history of film criticism, appeared in The New Yorker magazine on October 28, 1972
Last Tango in Paris

In her iconic review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Pauline Kael heralds the film’s premiere as a pivotal moment in cinematic history, paralleling its impact to the premiere of “Le Sacre du Printemps” in the music world. She celebrates the film for breaking through the norms of mechanized, passionless cinematic sexuality by presenting a raw, emotionally charged sexual relationship between its protagonists, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Kael argues that the film’s portrayal of sex not only defies expectations but also forces audiences to confront their own perceptions of sexuality, realism, and artistry in cinema. By challenging traditional representations and engaging with the complexities of human emotion and physicality, Bertolucci and Brando, according to Kael, redefine the potential of film as a medium for exploring the depths of human experience. She contends that Last Tango in Paris is both liberating and shocking, provoking strong reactions that underscore its significance as a revolutionary work of art that invites, and indeed demands, fervent discussion and debate.

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by Pauline Kael

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism.

The movie breakthrough has finally come. Exploitation films have been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without any passion or emotional violence. The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters’ drives. Marlon Brando, as Paul, is working out his aggression on Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and the physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything we’ve come to expect at the movies that there was something almost like fear in the atmosphere of the party in the lobby that followed the screening. Carried along by the sustained excitement of the movie, the audience had given Bertolucci an ovation, but afterward, as individuals, they were quiet. This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made, and so it’s probably only natural that an audience, anticipating a voluptuous feast from the man who made The Conformist, and confronted with this unexpected sexuality and the new realism it requires of the actors, should go into shock. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?

Many of us expected eroticism to come to the movies, and some of us had even guessed that it might come from Bertolucci, because he seemed to have the elegance and the richness and the sensuality to make lushly erotic movies. But I think those of us who had speculated about erotic movies had tended to think of them in terms of Terry Southern’s deliriously comic novel on the subject, Blue Movies; we had expected artistic blue movies, talented directors taking over from the Schlockmeisters and making sophisticated voyeuristic fantasies that would be gorgeous fun—a real turn-on. What nobody had talked about was a sex film that would churn-up everybody’s emotions. Bertolucci shows his masterly elegance in Last Tango in Paris, but he also reveals a master’s substance.

The script (which Bertolucci wrote with Franco Arcalli) is in French and English; it centers on a man’s attempt to separate sex from everything else. When his wife commits suicide, Paul, an American living in Paris, tries to get away from his life. He goes to look at an empty flat and meets Jeanne, who is also looking at it. They have sex in an empty room, without knowing anything about each other—not even first names. He rents the flat, and for three days they meet there. She wants to know who he is, but he insists that sex is all that matters. We see both of them (as they don’t see each other) in their normal lives—Paul back at the flophouse-hotel his wife owned, Jeanne with her mother, the widow of a colonel, and with her adoring fiance (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a TV director, who is relentlessly shooting a sixteen-millimeter film about her, a film that is to end in a week with their wedding. Mostly, we see Paul and Jeanne together in the flat as they act out his fantasy of ignorant armies clashing by night, and it is warfare—sexual aggression and retreat and battles joined.

The necessity for isolation from the world is, of course, his, not hers. But his life floods in. He brings into this isolation chamber his sexual anger, his glorying in his prowess, and his need to debase her and himself. He demands total subservience to his sexual wishes; this enslavement is for him the sexual truth, the real thing, sex without phoniness. And she is so erotically sensitized by the rounds of lovemaking that she believes him. He goads her and tests her until when he asks if she’s ready to eat vomit as a proof of love, she is, and gratefully. He plays out the American male tough-guy sex role—insisting on his power in bed, because that is all the “truth” he knows.

What they go through together in their pressure cooker is an intensified, speeded-up history of the sex relationships of the dominating men and the adoring women who have provided the key sex model of the past few decades—the model that is collapsing. They don’t know each other, but their sex isn’t “primitive” or “pure”; Paul is the same old Paul, and Jeanne, we gradually see, is also Jeanne, the colonel’s daughter. They bring their cultural hang-ups into sex, so it’s the same poisoned sex Strindberg wrote about: a battle of unequally matched partners, asserting whatever dominance they can, seizing any advantage. Inside the flat, his male physical strength and the mythology he has built on it are the primary facts. He pushes his morose, romantic insanity to its limits; he burns through the sickness that his wife’s suicide has brought on—the self-doubts, the need to prove himself and torment himself. After three days, his wife is laid out for burial and he is ready to resume his identity. He gives up the flat: He wants to live normally again, and he wants to love Jeanne as a person. But Paul is forty-five, Jeanne is twenty. She lends herself to an orgiastic madness, shares it, and then tries to shake it off—as many another woman has, after a night or a twenty-years’ night. When they meet in the outside world, Jeanne sees Paul as a washed-up middle-aged man—a man who runs a flophouse.

Much of the movie is American in spirit. Brando’s Paul (a former actor and journalist who has been living off his French wife) is like a drunk with a literary turn of mind. He bellows his contempt for hypocrisies and orthodoxies; he keeps trying to shove them all back down other people’s throats. His profane humor and self-loathing self-centeredness and street “wisdom” are in the style of the American hard-boiled fiction aimed at the masculine fantasy market, sometimes by writers (often good ones, too) who believe in more than a little of it. Bertolucci has a remarkably unbiased intelligence. Part of the convulsive effect of Last Tango in Paris is that we are drawn to Paul’s view of society and yet we can’t help seeing him as a self-dramatizing, self-pitying clown. Paul believes that his animal noises are more honest than words, and that his obscene vision of things is the way things really are; he’s often convincing. After Paul and Jeanne have left the flat, he chases her and persuades her to have a drink at a ballroom holding a tango contest. When we see him drunkenly sprawling on the floor among the bitch-chic mannequin-dancers and then baring his bottom to the woman official who asks him to leave, our mixed emotions may be like those some of us experienced when we watched Norman Mailer put himself in an indefensible position against Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett show, justifying all the people who were fed up with him. Brando’s Paul carries a yoke of masculine pride and aggression across his broad back; he’s weighed down by it and hung on it. When Paul is on all fours barking like crazy man-dog to scare off a Bible salesman who has come to the flat, he may—to the few who saw Mailer’s Wild 90—be highly reminiscent of Mailer on his hands and knees barking at a German shepherd to provoke it. But Brando’s barking extends the terms of his character and the movie, while we are disgusted with Mailer for needing to prove himself by teasing an unwilling accomplice, and his barking throws us outside the terms of his movie.

Realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen—that’s what Bertolucci and Brandoachieve. It’s what Mailer has been trying to get at in his disastrous, ruinously expensive films. He was right about what was needed but hopelessly wrong in how he went about getting it. He tried to pull a new realism out of himself onto film, without a script, depending wholly on improvisation, and he sought to bypass the self-consciousness and fakery of a man acting himself by improvising within a fictional construct—as a gangster in Wild 90, as an Irish cop in Beyond the Law (best of them), and as a famous director who is also a possible Presidential candidate in Maidstone. In movies, Mailer tried to will a work of art into existence without going through the steps of making it, and his theory of film, a rationale for this willing, sounds plausible until you see the movies, which are like Mailer’s shambling bouts of public misbehavior, such as that Cavett show. His movies trusted to inspiration and were stranded when it didn’t come.

Bertolucci builds a structure that supports improvisation. Everything is prepared, but everything is subject to change, and the whole film is alive with a sense of discovery. Bertolucci builds the characters “on what the actors are in themselves. I never ask them to interpret something preexistent, except for dialogue—and even that changes a lot.” For Bertolucci, the actors “make the characters.” And Brando knows how to improvise: it isn’t just Brando improvising, it’s Brando improvising as Paul. This is certainly similar to what Mailer was trying to do as the gangster and the cop and the movie director, but when Mailer improvises, he expresses only a bit of himself. When Brando improvises within Bertolucci’s structure, his full art is realized. His performance is not like Mailer’s acting but like Mailer’s best writing: intuitive, rapt, princely. On the screen Brando is our genius as Mailer is our genius in literature. Paul is Rojack’s expatriate-failure brother, and Brando goes all the way with him.

We all know that movie actors often merge with their roles in a way that stage actors don’t, quite, but Brando did it even on the stage. I was in New York when he played his famous small role in Truckline Cafe in 1946; arriving late at a performance, and seated in the center of the second row, I looked up and saw what I thought was an actor having a seizure onstage. Embarrassed for him, I lowered my eyes, and it wasn’t until the young man who’d brought me grabbed my arm and said, “Watch this guy!” that I realized he was acting. I think a lot of people will make my old mistake when they see Brando’s performance as Paul; I think some may prefer to make this mistake, so they won’t have to recognize how deep down he goes and what he dredges up. Expressing a character’s sexuality makes new demands on an actor, and Brando has no trick accent to play with this time, and no putty on his face. It’s perfectly apparent that the role was conceived for Brando, using elements of his past as integral parts of the character. Bertolucci wasn’t surprised by what Brando did; he was ready to use what Brando brought to the role. And when Brando is a full creative presence on the screen, the realism transcends the simulated actuality of any known style of cinéma verité, because his surface accuracy expresses what’s going on underneath. He’s an actor: when he shows you something, he lets you know what it means. The torture of seeing Brando—at his worst—in A Countess from Hong Kong was that it was a reductio ad absurdum of the wastefulness and emasculation (for both sexes) of Hollywood acting; Chaplin, the director, obviously allowed no participation, and Brando was like a miserably obedient soldier going through drill. When you’re nothing but an inductee, you have no choice. The excitement of Brando’s performance here is in the revelation of how creative screen acting can be. At the simplest level, Brando, by his inflections and rhythms, the right American obscenities, and perhaps an improvised monologue, makes the dialogue his own and makes Paul an authentic American abroad, in a way that an Italian writer-director simply couldn’t do without the actor’s help. At a more complex level, he helps Bertolucci discover the movie in the process of shooting it, and that’s what makes moviemaking an art. What Mailer never understood was that his macho thing prevented flexibility and that in terms of his own personality he couldn’t improvise—he was consciously acting. And he couldn’t allow others to improvise, because he was always challenging them to come up with something. Using the tactics he himself compared to “a commando raid on the nature of reality,” he was putting a gun to their heads. Lacking the background of a director, he reduced the art of film to the one element of acting, and in his confusion of “existential” acting with improvisation he expected “danger” to be a spur. But acting involves the joy of self-discovery, and to improvise, as actors mean it, is the most instinctive, creative part of acting—to bring out and give form to what you didn’t know you had in you; it’s the surprise, the “magic” in acting. A director has to be supportive for an actor to feel both secure enough and free enough to reach into himself. Brando here, always listening to an inner voice, must have a direct pipeline to the mystery of character.

Bertolucci has an extravagant gift for sequences that are like arias, and he has given Brando some scenes that really sing. In one, Paul visits his dead wife’s lover (Massimo Girotti) who also livesin the run-down hotel, and the two men, in identical bathrobes (gifts from the dead woman), sit side by side and talk. The scene is miraculously basic—a primal scene that has just been discovered. In another, Brando rages at his dead wife, laid out in a bed of flowers, and then, in an excess of tenderness, tries to wipe away the cosmetic mask that defaces her. He has become the least fussy actor. There is nothing extra, no flourishes in these scenes. He purifies the characterization beyond all that: he brings the character a unity of soul. Paul feels so “real” and the character is brought so close that a new dimension in screen acting has been reached. I think that if the actor were anyone but Brando many of us would lower our eyes in confusion.

His first sex act has a boldness that had the audience gasping, and the gasp was caused—in part—by our awareness that this was Marlon Brando doing it, not an unknown actor. In the flat, he wears the white T-shirt of Stanley Kowalski, and he still has the big shoulders and thick-muscled arms. Photographed looking down, he is still tender and poetic; photographed looking up, he is ravaged, like the man in the Francis Bacon painting under the film’s opening titles. We are watching Brando throughout this movie, with all the feedback that that implies, and his willingness to run the full course with a study of the aggression in masculine sexuality and how the physical strength of men lends credence to the insanity that grows out of it gives the film a larger, tragic dignity. If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don’t?

The colors in this movie are late-afternoon orange-beige-browns and pink—the pink of flesh drained of blood, corpse pink. They are so delicately modulated (Vittorio Storaro was the cinematographer, as he was on The Conformist) that romance and rot are one; the lyric extravagance of the music (by Gato Barbieri) heightens this effect. Outside the flat, the gray buildings and the noise are certainly modern Paris, and yet the city seems muted. Bertolucci uses a feedback of his own—the feedback of old movies to enrich the imagery and associations. In substance, this is his most American film, yet the shadow of Michel Simon seems to hover over Brando, and the ambience is a tribute to the early crime-of-passion films of Jean Renoir, especially La chienne and La bête Humaine. Léaud, as Tom, the young director, is used as an affectionate take-off on Godard, and the movie that Tom is shooting about Jeanne, his runaway bride, echoes Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. Bertolucci’s soft focus recalls the thirties films, with their lyrically kind eye for every variety of passion; Marcel Carne comes to mind, as well as the masters who influenced Bertolucci’s technique—von Sternberg (the controlled lighting) and Max Ophuls (the tracking camera). The film is utterly beautiful to look at. The virtuosity of Bertolucci’s gliding camera style is such that he can show you the hype of the tango contest scene (with its own echo of The Conformist) by stylizing it (automaton-dancers do wildly fake head turns) and still make it work. He uses the other actors for their associations, too—Girotti, of course, the star of so many Italian films, including Senso and Ossessione, Visconti’s version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and, as Paul’s mother-in-law, Maria Michi, the young girl who betrays her lover in Open City. As a maid in the hotel (part of a weak, diversionary subplot that is soon dispensed with), Catherine Allegret, with her heart-shaped mouth in a full, childishly beautiful face, is an aching, sweet reminder of her mother, Simone Signoret, in her Casque d’Or days. Bertolucci draws upon the movie background of this movie because movies are as active in him as direct experience—perhaps more active, since they may color everything else. Movies are a past we share, and, whether we recognize them or not, the copious associations are at work in the film and we feel them. As Jeanne, Maria Schneider, who has never had a major role before, is like a bouquet of Renoir’s screen heroines and his father’s models. She carries the whole history of movie passion in her long legs and baby face.

Maria Schneider’s freshness—Jeanne’s ingenuous corrupt innocence—gives the film a special radiance. When she lifts her wedding dress to her waist, smiling coquettishly as she exposes her pubic hair, she’s in a great film tradition of irresistibly naughty girls. She has a movie face—open to the camera, and yet no more concerned about it than a plant or a kitten. When she speaks English, she sounds like Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, and she often looks like a plump cheeked Jane Fonda in her Barbarella days. The role is said to have been conceived for Dominique Sanda, who couldn’t play it, because she was pregnant, but surely it has been reconceived. With Sanda, a tigress, this sexual battle might have ended in a draw. But the pliable, softly unprincipled Jeanne of Maria Schneider must be the winner: it is the soft ones who defeat men and walk away, consciencelessly. A Strindberg heroine would still be in that flat, battling, or in another flat, battling. But Jeanne is like the adorably sensual bitch-heroines of French films of the twenties and thirties—both shallow and wise. These girls know how to take care of themselves; they know who No. 1 is. Brando’s Paul, the essentially naive outsider, the romantic, is no match for a French bourgeois girl.

Because of legal technicalities, the film must open in Italy before it opens in this country, and so Last Tango in Paris is not scheduled to play here until January. There are certain to be detractors, for this movie represents too much of a change for people to accept it easily or gracefully. They’ll grab at aesthetic flaws—a florid speech or an oddball scene—in order to dismiss it. Though Americans seem to have lost the capacity for being scandalized, and the Festival audience has probably lost the cultural confidence to admit to being scandalized, it might have been easier on some if they could have thrown things. I’ve tried to describe the impact of a film that has made the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing. This is a movie people will be arguing about, I think, for as long as there are movies. They’ll argue about how it is intended, as they argue again now about The Dance of Death. It is a movie you can’t get out of your system, and I think it will make some people very angry and disgust others. I don’t believe that there’s anyone whose feelings can be totally resolved about the sex scenes and the social attitudes in this film. For the very young, it could be as antipathetic as L’avventura was at first — more so, because it’s closer, more realistic, and more emotionally violent. It could embarrass them, and even frighten them. For adults, it’s like seeing pieces of your life, and so, of course, you can’t resolve your feelings about it—our feelings about life are never resolved. Besides, the biology that is the basis of the “tango” remains.

The New Yorker, October 28, 1972


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