LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972)
“I want you to put your fingers up my ass”.
No, it’s not BRIEF ENCOUNTER. This infamous line comes from a very different type of romance: Bernardo Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, notorious in it’s time for a physically and verbally graphic sexuality that caused a furore for American censors and our own BBFC when it came to classifying it for UK release in 1973.
The opening credits depict two of Francis Bacon’s famously troubling and facially distorted paintings, foreshadowing that despite the title, we are heading for anything but dreamy chocolate-box glamour. We are shown separate male and female portraits of damaged, isolated lives which are then placed side by side. Set in Paris, the story unfolds as a recently-widowed American, Paul (Marlon Brando), distraught over the sudden suicide of his wife, meets a young French woman, Jeanne (Romy Scheider) when they both view the same apartment. They spontaneously couple in rough, urgent sex and begin an affair with strictly controlled rules at Paul’s insistence. They are to remain anonymous to each other: “We don’t need names here”. They must reveal nothing of their real lives either, and no reference to the world beyond the apartment. “Everything outside this room is bullshit” Paul declares. Theirs will be a convenient and controlled false reality - on his terms.
Whilst seeing Paul, Jeanne has an ongoing relationship with a pretentious film-maker boyfriend Thomas, (Jean-Pierre Leaud, famous for his work with Truffaut beginning with LES QUATRE CENT COUPS), who relentlessly films everything she does for some vaguely-mentioned movie. In that respect, she is simply trading one fake and exploitative relationship for another.
Inevitably, the retreating couple (if you can call such an emotionally isolated pairing this) begin to share details of themselves; what passes for post-coital intimacy causing them to recount their family backgrounds. This is the most interesting aspect of the film as allegedly Brando willingly improvised at length in one such scene, choosing to bare details of his difficult real-life upbringing. In his autobiography, Brando said that Bertolucci “..wanted me to play myself, to improvise completely and portray Paul as if he were an autobiographical mirror of me.” He did this willingly, the product of many sessions unburdening himself cathartically with the director in preparation for the role. Bertolucci arranged for full magazines of film to be loaded, which in the pre-digital era allowed a maximum of ten minutes’ recording, and simply let Brando loose. He recounts his alcoholic parents in pitiless, uncomfortable detail, bitterly describing a father who was “a whore-fucker… tough…super-masculine” and a mother “Poetic…also a drunk” whom he remembers once being arrested in the nude. He is more sympathetic to her, but these moments hint at why Paul may be so constipated in the soul in the present day. They also helped to earn Brando the actor an Oscar nomination (likewise Bertolucci).
Scheider did not likewise go beyond the part into revealing her real self on camera, yet in later life by association she was mistakenly viewed as giving an equally autobiographical performance. This was the least of her concerns. In a Daily Mail interview in July 2007, she recalled the physical sufferance she was exposed to on set much more against her will. In the filming of the infamous ‘butter sodomy’ scene where Paul lubricates himself with a little dairy help and then takes Jeanne forcibly via the road less travelled, she felt “…humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”. Despite this sequence, an idea of Brando’s not in the original script, Scheider forged a close relationship with her co-star. Contrary to rumours, all of their sex scenes were faked, not done for real, though of course that kind of speculation never harms the box-office for a cynical studio.
To be fair to Brando, his request line quoted at the start of this review puts his character on the receiving end of a compromising moment of his own, but it’s hard to ignore a recurring theme of this period in cinema of female characters being violated and the actress being expected to acquiesce in performing this in what must have been a male-dominated atmosphere of questionable sensitivity or support. 1971-1972 saw the releases of two other films, CLOCKWORK ORANGE and STRAW DOGS, whose depictions of female rape on-screen not only received a critical backlash but whose timing along with LAST TANGO IN PARIS created a storm of controversy leading Stephen Murphy to leave his job heading Britain’s BBFC board.
Whilst Brando was keen to expose something of himself Method-style in this role, he was reluctant to give consideration to line-learning. By now, he’d developed a technique as an actor of having his dialogue written on cue-cards, believing it enabled his performance to retain spontaneity. This is debatable; not only could it also be interpreted as laziness, Brando was known for making eccentric demands sometimes deliberately to test his employers. It certainly created problems for Bertolucci in keeping the cards out of shot, not to mention the difficulty I would foresee as a fellow actor for a scene partner to maintain any connection whilst Brando’s attention would continually be distracted by reading. Mostly this foible of his is unnoticeable, although in the very moving private eulogy he pays his wife’s corpse, at one point he looks up for no other reason than searching for the next line. To give credit where it’s due though, he demonstrates an impressive linguistic grasp of the copious amounts of French dialogue he’s required to say, much more than the cursory amount an American would usually speak as a foreigner in a European film.
Gradually, Paul’s quest for meaning in his grief leads him nowhere except within, to confront the inner pain he’s been avoiding through a forced construct of artificial sexual conquest. His meetings with his wife’s lover and her mother give no solace. His claustrophobic and perverse passion smothers Jeanne; via a brief sequence of conventional romance in a ballroom dancing event where he attempts to role-play chatting her up as a stranger, she realises the ultimate toxicity of staying with him. Her shooting of Paul as he confesses finally wanting to know her name at the end can be interpreted in different ways: Is she putting a wounded, self-destructive animal out of his misery? Does she fear that he is creating an awakening co-dependency in her? She has already decided to return to Thomas, who offers her a married life that has its own unreality but is arguably less corrosive.
Like much of the film - and relationships in real life - the characters’ motivations in LAST TANGO IN PARIS are complex. Behaviour and its pay-offs are sometimes a strange self-medication, like that of addicts or those in the grip of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. How we as humans deal with pain is not always easy to fathom to outsiders or even ourselves. For this reason I feel LAST TANGO IN PARIS justifies itself as flawed but valid. Whilst not having seen or read the more recent FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, I have to plead a Mary Whitehouse-style deference to what I gather is a tameness in comparison to this film’s brave rawness in documenting a doomed ‘negotiated’ relationship. At times the physical acting-out by Paul upon Jeanne is uncomfortably non-consensual (and for the viewer), the graphic sexual language is sometimes difficult to empathise with, but I feel that overall Bertolucci dares to explore a very private aspect of humanity with sincerity.