Last Tango In Paris (1972) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Last Tango In Paris (1972)

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ANDREW LIKEWhen the new releases look less than promising I turn to the past to see what I  have missed.  This week, I’ve booked a Bernardo Bertolucci double feature to catch up on the works of Italian directors of yesteryear.  Today, I’m taking a good hard look at Last Tango In Paris.  Is it a painful drama with ham fisted acting or a potent film of psychological truth?  I lean towards the latter, but there are some issues that push it to the former.

Tango features a stellar Marlon Brando that hadn’t yet descended into utter chaos.  His character would prefer to remain nameless, but for the purposes of the screenplay (and those who really know him) his name is Paul.  See, Paul is dealing with a lot of stress in his life on account of his wife committing suicide in the apartment they used to share together.  So he spends his days meandering about the city screaming at God and wondering why he has been dealt this hand.

Enter Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a passer by who happens upon Paul earlier in the day and also checks out his old apartment, which is now available to rent.  After some very cryptic pleasantries Brando takes it upon himself to remove Jeanne’s underwear and has sex with her in the apartment.  In standard society this might constitute as rape, but Jeanne doesn’t fight him at all and let’s him do what he needs to in the solitude of the apartment.  Over the coming weeks the two of them will share interludes in the apartment time and time again, slowly learning what they don’t want to, and gradually letting reality take hold of their fantasy life.

It’s this transition that supplies a lot of the drama in Tango.  Paul does not want Jeanne to know anything about him.  In this way he is able to project what he wants Jeanne to be for him instead of what she really is.  Their meetings in the apartment are conditioned upon one rule, that they do now bring anything from their outside lives into the divine space of sex.  During the first third of the film, when this rule has taken precedence over everything else, the film is absolutely fascinating.  I love my lurid pulp, especially when it is delivered with a straight face, and Tango does not take a single second to laugh at the desires of Jeanne or Paul.

But reality must intrude at some point, and that’s when Tango begins to break down for a little while.  The second act involves Paul and Jeanne playing games with each other and slowly revealing bits of information about their lives outside the apartment without revealing specific details.  What should be seen as a strange intrusion into the Real of their lives instead plays out as a series of incredibly boring monologues that reveal next to nothing about the characters.  Brando waxes on about horses as Schneider pontificates about fields and her childhood.  Not quite the stuff of cinema legend, especially since it serves as a distraction rather than the main course.

But things continue to escalate and Brando decides to interject a bit of “truth” into their lives.  This act, and it’s culmination in the tango hall, bring the movie back up considerably and save it from being a meandering art piece.  The psychological depth that these characters hint at in the opening frames is not fully realized, but not fully ignored either.  What we are left with is a series of very strong character sketches that are put through a meldoramatic plot and left out to dry for a little while.  It’s great in spots, but it really should have been better.

What is not in question are Bertolucci’s skills as a director.  This is something that he takes great pains to remind us a few too many times, but overall makes an incredibly lovely film.  He allows his characters to see each other through mirrors and windows, always distorted and never quite as they really are.  It’s when they are able to see each other fully that they are frightened by what the other represents, and not the foggy reflection that they created for the other.  It gets a bit showy at times, but overall Bertolucci’s shots are beautiful and in service to the characters, not the image.

If there is one thing that does not service the characters, it’s the score of this film.  Perhaps I’m becoming a bit too sensitive to the way music is used in movies, but it’s painfully obvious what feeling is suposed to be invoked based on the score.  At times I thought I was supposed to be in a shadowy nether realm of pain instead of just watching Paul and Jeanne walk down an alleyway.  Granted, they are each going through their own emotional turmoils, but did it really need to be spelled out so dramatically?

Brando’s aversion to nudity aside, which is strange and counter-productive in a film as frank as sex like this, it’s an intensely erotic dream at times.  The truth is, at times, something that we escape from with sex, and these are two people that, for a time, understand that fully.  It’s unfortunate that the film forgot this for a little while, but the memories of those good times are what trigger the horrifying nightmare of reality in the end.

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Last Tango In Paris (1972)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.
Written by Bernardo Bertolucci.
Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider.

Posted by Andrew

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