(Le Dernier Tango à Paris; Ultimo tango a Parigi)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Production: P.E.A. (Rome) and Artistes Associés (Paris); Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 126 minutes. Released 15 December 1972, Paris. Filmed 1971–72 in Paris.
Producer: Alberto Grimaldi; screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci and Franco Arcalli; photography: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Franco Arcalli; sound: Antoine Bonfanti; production designer: Ferdinando Scarfiotti; music: Gato Barbieri; costume designer: Gitt Magrini.
Cast: Marlon Brando ( Paul ); Maria Schneider ( Jeanne ); Jean-Pierre Léaud ( Tom ); Massimo Girotti ( Marcel ); Maria Michi ( Rosa's mother );
Awards: New York Film Critics Award, Best Actor (Brando), 1973.
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* * *
A piece of filmmaking that earned its creator a suspended two-month prison sentence in his native Italy and an X-rating in the U.S., Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris is a heartbreaking, revelatory masterpiece which has not aged one bit since its completion, a quarter of a century ago.
Although the plot concerns a private affair, the film's magnitude is that of a true tragedy, the genre that celluloid does not usually capture well. What makes it a tragedy is the intensity of its conflict that, as in Medea or Hamlet , can be solved by no means but one—death. Like any tragedy, classical or modern, Last Tango knows no compromise. Like any tragedy, it is inhabited by people who act according to the tragic inevitability and are led by destiny. Like any tragedy, this one has an epic dimension to it: it speaks of global changes and apocalyptic results. (That the two rare screen tragedies of recent decades— another one being Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses —both tie together sex and death may say something about our times.)
Like most tragedies, Last Tango is about an end. Bertolucci's ambition goes further than a CAT scan of a relationship; the film depicts nothing less than the end of the modern age and character. Paul, the protagonist, who, having just lost his wife to suicide, begins a sexual relationship with a rival prospective tenant of a vacant Paris apartment, is an epitome of a modernist romantic. He is burdened by the past, rebellious against the present, and doomed for the future. That he is an American (something of a cultural virgin and an heir to Hemingway and Henry Miller) and the Marlon Brando of Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront is essential. His anonymous, primal and ruthless engagement with Maria Schneider's Jeanne, who does not have a past and embodies, voluptuously, the bourgeois spirit, is juxtaposed with the cute, naive, "French" and Truffaut-esque romanticism of Jeanne's affair with Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud). That affair lovingly mocks Vigo's "L'Atalante" and is decidedly anticlimactic. Unlike Leaud's Tom, who is an ever-filming filmmaker and a loveable impotent, Brando's Paul is virile, but cannot express himself—an Artaud without an art. Moving by the modernist trajectory, he strives to abandon culture and go back to nature; to create a world outside the real world; to reinvent the language; to start all over again. This is why Last Tango is rooted in sex, and this is why the sex in it is so fierce and unerotic. In its relentless deconstruction of the norm, modernist art arrives at the darkness of "The Black Square," the silence of John Cage, the filmlessness of Stan Brakhage. Paul, in turn, falls in love, and thus fails his quest. Like another American in Europe, Jack Nicholson's Passenger , he finds it not possible to rewrite his identity or to regain the paradise lost.
Brando as Paul is a model of acting exorcism. He growls and weeps and dashes around like a caged animal; the whole world is his cage. His intensity is so high that even today, when we know what has happened with the great Marlon Brando, one fears that he will burn out there on the screen, like an overcharged fuse.
Vittorio Storaro's breathtaking camera films Brando and Schneider against the sunset spectrum of red, orange, yellow and pink—painful colors of Francis Bacon, the modernist painter who influenced Bertolucci's vision. Gato Barbieri's Latin saxophone produces swirls and crescendos that add to the desperation of the screen image.
Being one of the most intelligent films ever made, Last Tango is also one of the most honest. It keeps no defenses, it takes everything off—the characters, the filmmakers, and ourselves.