The cover of my DVD copy of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris calls the film “as scandalous as it is scintillating” and goes on like this: “He (Brando) is a 45-year-old American living in Paris, haunted by his wife’s suicide. She (Maria Schneider) is a 20-year-old Parisian beauty engaged to a young filmmaker. Though nameless to each other, these tortured souls come together to satisfy their sexual cravings in an apartment as bare as their dark, tragic lives.” Which I think is pretty much how people usually sum up Last Tango. But watching the film again recently after a seven-year gap, it struck me how unequal that is to the thrilling experience it provides.
If nothing else, that description seems to promise a much more straightforward creation than Bertolucci actually delivers. The two certainly have sex (some of it famously provocative in conception, although somewhat less so in what’s actually shown on screen), but not as much as they talk, and seldom in what you could call normal conversations; often they exchange sheer streams of consciousness, not even always in the same language, at one point abandoning language altogether and exulting in a stream of nonsense sounds. Her engagement to the young filmmaker, although she seems to be planning to go through with it, arises on a whim, and it’s barely clear whether their relationship would exist in the absence of a camera. It’s not precise I think to say he’s haunted by his wife’s suicide – it’s too recent to belong to the past in the way that term implies: it’s rather that her suicide is the redefining event on which all his short-term actions are necessarily based, whether as ways of assimilating it or of denying it.
Maria Schneider died recently, and the obituaries reported she had a difficult life, deeply regretting her participation in Bertolucci’s film and the director’s treatment of her: she called him “more of a gangster than a movie director” and said he and Brando “completely manipulated” her. You can see this on the screen I think, and the sense of bearing witness to an abuse may cause the viewer something of an ethical dilemma. Her presence in the film (“performance” doesn’t quite seem like the right word) has often been patronized, if not ridiculed, but I don’t know how the film could be any more effective with anyone else in the role: unwittingly or not, she provides the compelling spectacle of a woman whose personal instincts are simply overwhelmed, forcing her to grab at points of coherence even as they melt away before her.
Still, Last Tango in Paris isn’t primarily her film of course, not by a long way. It’s astonishing that Brando made the picture in the year after The Godfather (but before it revitalized his legend with its huge success). He’s great in that film of course, but still relies on an accent and make-up and actorly tricks: it lays the groundwork for the undemanding cartoonish contributions he made to most of his later movies. In Last Tango he plays a man slightly younger than himself, conscious of aging and of gaining weight, but still ravishingly handsome and charismatic. Bits of his past history evoke Brando’s own life and films, but for the last five years he’s been living with his wife in the rundown hotel she owned. This sense of exile and stagnation suggests he might as plausibly be liberated as haunted by her loss, even if it’s a necessarily bumpy and non-linear liberation. And it’s the sense of the liberation as that of Marlon Brando himself, undergoing his own last artistic tango, which primarily shapes the film’s impact now.
He’s simply astonishing in the film, demonstrating an almost unimaginable resourcefulness and unpredictability. I doubt the character is entirely coherent in psychological terms, but he’s coherent as Brando, as an actor, as a somewhat discredited force grasping at a trauma as a means of reorientation. Many of the scenes feel rather like acting class exercises; I don’t mean at all that they feel contrived or stilted, but rather that they carry a sense of surrendering to an abstraction as a way of better finding oneself. And for all the film’s earthiness, it feels plugged into higher powers. When we first see Brando, bellowing with agony in the street, the camera swoops down on him from above, as if God were deciding to invest all his creative force in this one vessel; his initial connection with the girl has the distinct sense of supernatural predestination about it
The miracle of the film is that it’s nevertheless as enveloping as a story, with a beginning, middle and end (an ending that plays effectively into the psychological mystery, even if it’s primarily another improvisational flourish). The more one knows of Bertolucci, of course, the richer it seems. He was just 32 when he made Last Tango, after a series of remarkable early films. He tried something not dissimilar a few years after it, with La Luna, starring Jill Clayburgh as an opera singer drawn after her husband’s death into an incestuous relationship with her drug-addicted teenage son. In many ways, La Luna is even more dazzlingly executed than Last Tango – I don’t think it contains a single scene not marked by some near-miracle of composition or framing – and Bertolucci goes even further in rendering every step immaculately strange, crafting astonishing relationships and behavior, exploring the impossible grandness of a life lived as though it were art.
But the film was mostly viewed as a failure – it was too easy to see it as merely excessive and rather sordid, and Clayburgh couldn’t possibly ventilate its centre in the way of a Brando. After Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man – another fascinating but perhaps overly fragmented work – the director was quiet for six years before reemerging with The Last Emperor. He won an Oscar for it, but his subsequent films, although always immaculate and surprising in at least some sense, have mostly been assessed as disappointments. My favourite is his 1998 Besieged, another story of “tortured souls” and “sexual cravings,” with Bertolucci’s mastery of the camera and his sensitivity to design and human movement and the connections between things creating something constantly alluring. When I saw his 2003 film The Dreamers, I made a note that it could almost be interpreted as a sad parable on the perils of loving film too much; whether or not that’s right, he hasn’t made a picture since.
Still, Bertolucci’s body of work is one of the most valuable in modern cinema, and Last Tango in Paris is one of the great fusions of actor and director; scintillating beyond doubt, and sure, perhaps even scandalous, if it’s scandalous to have left such a challenging mark on film history.