LAST TANGO IN PARIS: THE UNVISITABLE PAST – Review by Julian Jebb [Sight and Sound]

In Last Tango there is a quite plain idea—it’s very nearly a film with a message: sex as an instrument of power divorced from tenderness or curiosity results in chaos and despair.


by Julian Jebb

‘It would be proper to put the name of my analyst in the credits of my films,’ Bernardo Bertolucci has said. It was a relief to read this after a month of puzzling about the meaning of Last Tango in Paris—a month when the European press was in breathless, lubricious rout in which the images and the intentions of the film were wholly obscured in endlessly repeated descriptions of the sex scenes. In her distinguished and already famous review of the film last October in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote: ‘I have 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”.’ She could not have foreseen the mostly abysmal level of discussion which would ensue—though she was absolutely right in predicting that the film would affront audiences in a unique way.

The confusion of response which the film excites arises, I think, from several sources: the opulent cinematography, Marlon Brando’s performance and the sexuality are all accessible, each contributes to the shocking force of the film’s impact, but simultaneously they can make one overlook the impenetrable obscurity of some of the imagery. I was sometimes reminded of Auden’s early poems, where the force of the ideas and the grace of the language help one to ignore the privacies with which they are spiked. In Auden’s case the images and phrases were teases, minute love letters from a subconscious mind to a desired body, perhaps; or snatches of clever dreams given the dignity of poetic utterance. With Bertolucci the subconscious is the poetry, and one of his films, Partner, which deals with schizophrenia, remains virtually impossible to understand as an idea or even a series of fragmented ideas. There is no co-ordination, and hence no synthesis.
In Last Tango there is a quite plain idea—it’s very nearly a film with a message: sex as an instrument of power divorced from tenderness or curiosity results in chaos and despair. Paul (Marlon Brando), an ageing American whose wife has just committed suicide, meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider in an unfurnished flat in Paris. He makes violent love to her and they continue to meet over the following three days at the apartment. Jeanne is shortly to be married to a young documentary film-maker Jean-Pierre Leaud), who is engaged at the time in making a film about her. Paul insists on anonymity while he subjects both himself and his mistress to a series of sexual degradations. After his wife has been buried and Jeanne has declared her love for him, his attitude to her changes. He chases her to a large dance hall where he drunkenly takes to the floor; she runs away to her mother’s flat with Paul still in pursuit. She shoots him, perhaps unintentionally, and as he dies he says, ‘What will become of our children?’
To indicate the difficulties in the film, it is worth itemising some of the baffling images and events which occur in the first five minutes. The opening shot of the film shows Paul under a Parisian railway bridge. He howls something up as a train roars by. But what? Is there any significance in the name of the street, Rue Jules Verne, where the apartment is situated? W hat is the cause of the giggling complicity of the black woman concierge? And in the flat, what is the meaning of the waist-high terra cotta stripe which circles one of the rooms, like the high-water mark left by the retreat of a muddy river in flood? What lies beneath the sheeted totem in the other room? After they have made violent love, Jeanne rolls over three times away from Paul. Why? he whole sequence is bathed in a luxurious, melancholy amber light; the music enters, surges, retreats— the brutality, neurosis and despair of Paul’s behaviour is trapped in the colours and movement of romance. Why?
Nearly every sequence which follows is as dense with references, some of them very much more intrusive and puzzling than these. To ignore them or to relegate them to some limbo area like ‘texture’ or ‘atmosphere’ is to abnegate the right to critical analysis. Yet to dwell on them too much is to reduce a very powerful film to a series of dubious Freudian speculations. But it is necessary to say that after two viewings of the film there is much that I do not understand and believe that no amount of careful scrutiny would help me, because it is Bertolucci’s intention to mystify, as much as it is to illuminate and affront.

Last Tango in Paris is about a man without a history. In the most significant speech Paul talks of his youth: ‘My father was a drunk, a screwed-up bar fighter. My mother was also a drunk. My memories as a kid are of her being arrested… I remember one time I was all dressed up to take this girl to a basketball game. My father said: “You have to milk the cow” And I said “Would you please milk it for me ?” He said “No, get your ass out there” I didn’t have time to change my shoes, and I had cowshit all over my shoes. Later on it smelled in the car. I can’t remember very many good things.’ This is the indignity and distress which lies at the back of many deprived American lives—from a generally brutal and chaotic background specific humiliations emerge. There is no American ‘innocence’ about Brando’s Paul—he was born damaged and resentful and his solace has lain in his sexual magnetism and prowess. To adapt a memorable phrase of Henry lames’s, he has no ‘visitable past’. This is crucial to the film. Paul’s insistence on anonymity in his relationship with Jeanne is no gesture of vacuous narcissism: his belief that ‘grunts and groans are better than names’ is no less than a statement of his lack of identity and a sick man’s desire to incorporate another in his illness.
With a single important exception, we see Paul throughout in pursuit of degradation. When he rages over his wife’s painted corpse, when he forces Jeanne to insert her fingers in his anus whilst he mouths obscenities, when he plays the drunken gallant to her at the dance hall, when he buggers her on the floor—on each occasion he is engaged in the despairing enterprise of fulfilling his self-disgust. The exception is the scene with his wife’s ex-lover when, dressed in identical dressing-gowns given to them by her, they reminisce about the techniques of her love-making. Brando compliments his companion on the trimness of his figure. The room has books and pictures. They are at ease with a shared experience, ‘hey are bound by an ironic and tender respect.
Unlike his forerunners, Godard and Truffaut, Bertolucci has tended to avoid literary references in his films. Perhaps because of his highly cultivated upbringing as the son of a poet and film critic in Italy he has found such reminders either ‘phoney’ or otiose. And yet his work is saturated in culture—in history. In Last Tango he confronts the decline and fall of America in the last dozen or so years. It is not fanciful, I think, to see Brando’s Paul as representing a vision of America’s decadence. Here was a country which seemed to pour out more energy and wealth than the world had ever known—the nation where strong puritan will combined with a pioneering spirit of enterprise and improvisation to produce a cornucopia of popular culture. Brando in his early films projected more powerfully and sensitively than any other actor a sense both of the violence and relaxation which lay behind. But neither America nor Brando has aged wisely. The cataclysms of racial and military disorder which have overtaken the country coincide neatly with the decline of Brando’s hold over the audience. The Sixties saw him lend his talents to ill-conceived allegories of martyrdom, which often made him look less like the victim of injustice than the willing recipient of punishment.
The genius of Bertolucci is to have harnessed this masochism to a vision. Last Tango is an elegy to the European dream of America, and it takes the form of a psychoanalysis in which the patient acts out his fantasies not to an older, wiser man but to Jeanne, a new European, released from all preoccupations except pleasure. In the course of their fitful meetings it is Paul who does the talking, Jeanne who complies, unaware of how or why he is manipulating her. She goes along with his outrageous demands, his self-pitying or rhetorical speeches, because she is intrigued and physically infatuated. Meanwhile as his madness increases, her boredom and disaffection with her fiance, Tom the filmmaker, grows. It is surely a footling enterprise, this documentary about a young girl on the brink of marriage, in which she and the director play themselves. Far more real are the melodramatic indignities acted out upstairs in the Rue Jules Verne which has no future and no past.
And yet when, all unknowing, she begins to effect a cure, to bring Paul in touch with reality by her declaration of love, for the first time she rebels, first in confusion at his drunken pursuit and finally in terror. She was his captive, a trained animal, so she thought: now she finds that her keeper is a mad beast and so she kills him.

Behind the opening credits are two Francis Bacon portraits—a man and a woman. The male figure sits twisted, a smear of painted flesh; like Paul, one does not imagine that he remembers very many good things. The paint, as in the calmer portrait of the woman, is lavish; the distortions of the features are not necessarily emblematic of pain or horror, but rather to do with what Bacon has called the element of accident which for him is an essential ingredient of a work of art. There may be a clue here to the puzzling combination of symbols and techniques which contribute to the style of Last Tango in Paris. The dream of the fall of America seen in the disintegration of one man calls for extraordinary subconscious resources to be applied with the greatest confidence and skill. Hence perhaps the improvisation of Brando’s Paul, or parts of it—which and what we are not invited to know. Clearly the film as we see it is composed in strict sequences, but we can only guess if there was even more at some time. For instance the flophouse hotel which Paul runs is peculiarly insubstantial. And what are we to make of Paul’s dying enquiry: ‘What is to become of our children ?’ There is no suggestion that Jeanne is pregnant, and the idea that he is speaking about all future generations appears rather unsophisticated. Perhaps the children are Asia and Africa, the cultures spawned and exploited first by Europe and then by America. But until Bertolucci, or even his analyst, tells us we can only speculate.

Source: Sight and Sound, Spring 1973; pp. 80-81


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