Filmsite Movie Review
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
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Last Tango in Paris (1972) is director Bernardo Bertolucci's landmark and controversial erotic film - an arthouse film. It told about the development of a destructive relationship, as it followed a distraught, confused, lonely, grieving widower and middle-aged American exile named Paul who plunged into a sado-masochistic, sex-crazed, physical (yet impersonal, joyless, mindless and basically anonymous) relationship after his wife's suicide - to escape from, distract himself from, and purge his anguished grief.

He found a partner in a detached, unhappily-engaged, non-resistant, cherubic female less than half his age that he could sexually dominate, and who accepted his compulsive desires and needs for unencumbered sex. Their raw and restricted relationship (with no names or past history) worked for awhile, until it broke down when he ended the anonymity and began chasing after her - leading to tragic consequences.

In contrast, she was engaged to a smothering, pretentious and obnoxious young New Wave filmmaker (a take-off on Godard) about whom she felt ambivalent. At one point, she spitefully told her controlling, obsessed and insipid fiancee that she was upset by his intrusive camera that was also raping her: ("Find another girl for your film....You take advantage of me. You make me do things I've never done. You're stealing my time. You make me do whatever you want. The film is over. I'm tired of having my mind raped!").

The transgressive and controversial movie from United Artists was noteworthy as the first "mainstream" film to carry the dreaded "X" rating, due mostly to the fact that the film featured a major star who had sex throughout the entire movie; it contained raw (yet simulated) sexual scenes with primitive force - critics and audiences alike asked - was it erotic art or pornography? Curiously, it debuted the same year as the notorious X-rated hit Deep Throat (1972).

In 1974, it became the first film to be prosecuted under Britain's Obscene Publications Act. The film was available in a censored R-rated version in 1981 (with modifications mostly to the anal-sex butter scene which was not entirely in the original script), and as an uncut X-rated (or NC-17) version. [When re-released in 1997, the MPAA re-rated the film as NC-17.]

Brando and director Bertolucci were both nominated for Oscars in the highly-acclaimed and debated cinematic work. Brando in particular, as a quintessential "method actor," fused some of his own personal life and his most famous roles (i.e., A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), etc.) into his vulnerable and exposed portrayal of the male protagonist.

Plot Synopsis

Opening Credits Sequence:

During the opening title credits, two of modernist artist Francis Bacon's paintings from the mid-1960s were featured in the layout, each for half of the duration. Both paintings were typical Bacon works of art that depicted human skin as raw meat.

As the credits concluded, the two grotesque images were briefly brought together and placed next to each other. They represented the two separate, tortured, isolated, and tormented individuals, each of whom was suffering from inner troubles, who would be joined together for a brief period of time in the film.

The Painting
The Image
The Symbolism

Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (on the left half of the screen) -

A depiction of a contorted male with distorted facial features, wearing a white T-shirt while awkwardly reclining back on a red sofa.

Represents the Male Figure of Paul
Study for a Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (on the right half of the screen) -

A depiction of a female, equally distorted and straining.
Represents the Female Figure of Jeanne

Two Strangers Meeting in an Apartment:

In the film's opening, middle-aged, 45 year-old overweight American expatriate and hotel owner Paul (Oscar-nominated Marlon Brando), an emotionally-crushed, pained and wounded widower, was screaming to the heavens: "F--king God!" as he covered his ears to drown out the thunderous sound of a passing Metro train overhead. The tortured man seemed very lost and distraught as he strolled along by himself.

Young, big-breasted 20 year-old Parisienne ingenue Jeanne (22 year-old Maria Schneider), a proper bourgeois female who was engaged to be married, noticed a sign advertising a Left Bank apartment (on Rue Jules Verne) for rent. The cute and innocent-looking female was wearing a short dark yellow skirt, a floppy black hat (with a flower) and a coat with a feather boa. She acquired a 'duplicate' key for the apartment from the building's downstairs "crazy" Concierge (Darling Légitimus) and took an elevator up to the second floor. She was inspecting the empty, dilapidated and grubby apartment that was advertised for rent, as a possible place to rent and live with her serious film-maker fiancee Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud). As she raised the shade, she unexpectedly found Paul sitting in the dark next to the fireplace mantle. She asked the possibly-menacing and mysterious character:

"Who are you? You gave me a fright? How'd you get in?"

He clarified that he had entered before her. They both wandered around and saw a pile of furniture in a side room covered by a white sheet, possibly left by the previous occupants. It symbolized material and emotional baggage often left behind or concealed. They both answered a ringing phone and found themselves talking to each other on two different phone extensions ("There's no one here"). Both expressed that they were undecided about renting the place or not.

Although engaged, she acted in a carefree manner and passively accepted his prurient sexual demands and needs for a spontaneous tryst. He picked her up (clothed), carried her to an apartment window with closed venetian blinds, and put his hand between her legs, and they mutually kissed and embraced. Then he tore off her panties and forcefully had intercourse (it wasn't romantic love-making) with her as they were standing up (with her legs wrapped around him), without saying anything. She didn't resist or object to his advances. Afterwards, they both collapsed to the floor still embracing, and she rolled across the floor. As the two parted at the front door, still without a word between them, Paul ripped down the "For Rent" sign and tossed it away.

Their frequent, controversial, carnal, bawdy and raw sexual scenes began at that point, and became increasingly more vile, empty and unromantic.

Background About Jeanne's and Paul's Lives:

In the next sequence, background information was provided about Jeanne's life. She met her adoring fiancée Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud) at the Paris Metro train station, after his return from a filming assignment. He was an ambitious and young TV documentary film-maker - and even in the midst of their greeting each other, every moment was being filmed for his TV documentary (titled "Portrait of a Girl") as he pretentiously told her: "This is cinema. We're making a movie. If I kiss you, that might be cinema. If I caress you, it might be cinema."

There were obviously some rifts in their relationship, mostly due to Jeanne's annoyance over Tom's obsessive filming of everything regarding her, and his demand to make a cinéma vérité documentary all about her life - and his every moment with her. She found herself at odds with both men - Tom with his prying camera lens, and Paul with his insistent genitals.

[Note: In fact, it was widely noted that director Bertolucci's manipulative approach toward the improvisational filming of Brando and Schneider equalled Tom's intrusive methods of filming his fiancee within the film's plot. Both were reported to produce pain and discomfort - to Schneider's own real life and within her filmic role.]

Meanwhile, Paul returned to his own flophouse-hotel apartment, where he had lived with his wife Rosa (Veronica Lazar) for about five years. [Note: It was later revealed to be a semi-bordello where prostitutes often brought their clients.] Rosa had recently committed suicide two days earlier by slashing her wrists with a razor in a bathtub and splattering blood onto the walls. Paul discovered a pretty maid Catherine (Catherine Allégret) in the bathroom with the tap water running, as she cleaned up the blood stains on the bathroom walls, around the tub, and on the white plastic shower divider and curtain. She explained how she had been asked questions by the police (whom she called "pigs") about her "boss" (Paul). They had forced her to reenact the bloody death - suspicious if it was a suicide or not: "If she was sad, if she was happy. If you fought, if you hit each other. And then when you were married, why you didn't have children. Pigs. They treated me like dirt"; she briefly summarized to them information about Paul's background as a boxer, an actor, a bongo player, a revolutionary in South America, a journalist in Japan, and a Tahitian resident learning French before coming to Paris. Once in Paris, he had married the rich, deceased female and became her "kept" man.

[Note: This question was superficially asked: Was Rosa's death actually a suicide, or had Paul killed her over despair about being dependent upon her as a "kept" man?]

The Ground-Rules for the Development of an Affair Between Two Anonymous People: Jeanne and Paul:

The next day back at the vacant rental apartment, Jeanne arrived as workers from a moving company brought in items of rented furniture (a table, a sofa, chairs, a double mattress and bed frame, etc.). Paul entered also, to rearrange the furniture's placement to his liking. Presumably, Paul had leased the apartment (under a fake name) where he could continue to meet the French girl in a series of puzzling encounters, during afternoon sexual encounters about twice a week.

Paul insisted on having a continuing sexual affair - but conducted anonymously without names. His set of 'no questions asked' and 'no names' rules was notable for the time. Surprisingly, Jeanne was accepting of the terms:

Jeanne: "I don't know what to call you."
Paul: "I don't have a name."
Jeanne: "You want to know my name?"
Paul: "No, no, I don't, I don't wanna know your name. You don't have a name and I don't have a name either. No names here. Not one name."
Jeanne: "You're crazy."
Paul: "Maybe I am, but I don't wanna know anything about you. I don't wanna know where you live or where you come from. I wanna know nothing, nothing. Do you understand?"
Jeanne: "You scare me."
Paul: "Nothing. You and I are gonna meet here without knowing anything that goes on outside here. OK?"
Jeanne: "But why?"
Paul: "Because, because we don't need names here. Don't you see? We're gonna forget everything that we knew. Every - all the people, all that we do, all that we, wherever we live. We're gonna forget that, everything, everything."
Jeanne: "But I can't. Can you?"
Paul: "I don't know. Are you scared?"
Jeanne: "Come."

Paul's Disagreements with With Rosa's Mother Over Absolution from a Priest:

Later, Paul met with Rosa's visiting, grieving mother (Maria Michi), who explained how Rosa's father was forbidden by doctors to travel with her due to his asthma. She began to gather Rosa's possessions, looking for "something that explains it. A letter, a clue." Paul suggested that she quit searching: "There's nothing, absolutely nothing...Useless to look anymore," but she remained curious why there was no note or explanation left for her. Paul remained uninterested in finding the cause for the suicide. After finding her a vacant room to stay in, the mother continued wondering about Paul's relationship with Rosa, and more details about how the suicide happened. He would soon be explaining many factors leading to her death.

When they began to discuss the funeral arrangements (flowers, mourning clothes, etc.), Paul insisted: "I dont want any priests here." But Rosa's mother objected: "You need them. It must be a religious funeral." He vehemently objected and shouted: "NO!" - and refused considering giving Rosa absolution from a priest, since in his mind, suicide was a mortal sin and there was no other indication that it was anything but a suicide:

Paul: "Rosa wasn't a believer. Nobody believes in a f--king God here!...A priest doesn't want any suicides. Church doesn't want any suicides, do they?"
Mother: "They'll give her absolution. Absolution and a nice mass. That's all I ask. Understand? Rosa - she's my baby girl. Why did she kill herself?"
Paul: "Why did she kill herself? Why? Why did she kill herself? Why? (He punched at the door in anger) You don't know, do you? You don't know."

The Start of Regular Encounters With the Young French Girl For "No Names" Sex:

Upon their return to the apartment (while Paul was making funeral arrangements), Paul and Jeanne had given complicit permission to not share or reveal anything about their pasts. On a bare mattress in the middle of one of the rooms, the two were seen hugging each other naked and coupled together. As the camera slowly pulled back, he proposed that they concentrate on observing each other: "Now, let's just look at each other." She suggested: "It's beautiful without knowing anything. Maybe, maybe we can come without touching," but they were unsuccessful ("It's difficult").

Then she suggested that she invent a name for him: "I shall have to invent a name for you." He countered: "Oh, God, I've been called by a million names all my life. I don't want a name. I'm better off with a grunt or a groan for a name. Do you wanna hear my name?" After he made animal sounds, she complimented him: ("So masculine"), and then she made her own trilling noises ("Listen to mine"). He joked: "I didn't get the last name," and they continued speaking in grunting moans and sounds.

Film-maker Thomas' Documentary About Jeanne:

At the same time, Jeanne had invited Thomas (and his documentary film crew) to her former childhood country home and village where she lived after her Papa's death. She showed him her buried dog Mustapha: ("He was my childhood friend. He would watch me for hours. Maybe he understood me. Dogs are better than people"), and introduced him to her domestic maid Olympia (Luce Marquand) - ("Olympia is the personification of domestic virtue. Faithful, economic and racist"). In a classroom photograph, she pointed out her teacher Mademoiselle Sauvage, and her best friend Christine (who was married with two children). Jeanne explained how her small village was more liveable than Paris: ("I couldn't live in Paris. It's more humane here"), and that it was "melancholy remembering the past." Thomas kept setting up additional shots and encouraging Jeanne to recall her past for his camera, back to when she was 8 years old: "Keep going and find your childhood again....Don't be afraid, overcome the obstacles."

Next to a picture of her father in his "full dress uniform," Jeanne began speaking about her father, a reknowned war hero. She began reading excerpts from her writings in her own schoolgirl notebook - an exposition about life in the "countryside." Other notations explained the definitions of two anatomical words:

  • Menstruation. Feminine noun. Physiological function consisting in flow.
  • Penis. Masculine noun. Organ of copulation, measuring between five and 40 centimeters.

She also told him that her first love was her cousin Paul (unrelated to the present-day Paul), but didn't describe any further details. Outside, she showed Thomas and the film crew where she used to play in a field and imagine she was in a jungle (where she lost her virginity?). When Thomas insisted on five more minutes of recollections, Jeanne refused ("I'm in a hurry for work").

Some Reflections About the Past Between Jeanne and Paul - Recalling Their First Sexual Experiences:

The film transitioned to further reflections from Jeanne, now topless and wearing jeans in the apartment and in the company of Paul. She was briefly speaking about her father, a Colonel in the French Foreign Legion fighting in Algeria: ("I loved him like a god. He was so handsome in his uniform"). Paul denounced uniforms in general: ("What a steaming pile of horses--t...All uniforms are bulls--t. Everything outside this place is bulls--t"). And he reminded her that they shouldn't be talking about their pasts:

"Besides that, I don't want to hear about your stories about your past, and all that."

But she continued - sharing that her father died in fighting in 1958 in Algeria. He rebuked her for speaking about her past:

Paul: "Listen. Why don't you stop talking about things that don't matter here? What the hell's the difference?"
Jeanne: "OK. So, what do I have to say and what do I have to do?"
Paul: "Come on the good ship lollipop." [Note: A euphemism for having sexual intercourse with him.] (He began playing a harmonica)

And now it was his turn to share some information about his past (claiming that he grew up in the rural Midwest), after she asked: "Why don't you go back to America?" - he began to speak about his "bad memories" and his unhappy childhood living in the country:

"My father was a, a drunk. Tough. Whore-f--ker, bar-fighter. Super-masculine. And he was tough. My mother was very, very poetic. And also a drunk. And one of my memories, when I was a kid, was of her being arrested nude. We lived in this small town. Farming community. We lived on a farm. And I'd come home after school and she'd be gone. In jail or something. And, uh, and I used to, I used to have to milk a cow every morning and every night and I liked that, but I remember, uhm, one time I was all dressed up to go out and take this girl to a basketball game. And I started to go out and my father said, 'You have to milk the cow.' And I asked him, I said, 'Would you please milk it for me?' And he said, 'No, get your ass out there.' So I went out and I was in a hurry. Didn't have time to change my shoes, and I had cow s--t all over my shoes. And on the way to the basketball game, it smelled in the car. And - I don't know. I-l can't remember very many good things..."

She asked: "Not one?" And he responded: "Yeah. Some." Paul continued with more memories of a hard-working, overall-wearing elderly farmer who smoked a clay pipe and dribbled spit down the pipe stem. He would bet to himself whether the spit drop would fall off or not. He recalled how his mother taught him to love nature, and how their big black female dog Dutchy used to hunt rabbits in the tall mustard field-meadow in front of their house - by leaping up to see them, but "she never caught the rabbits."

But afterwards, Jeanne reacted, believing that he had a very unhappy childhood and life: "You have been had... I don't wanna know anything about your past, baby." Then, he basically admitted that he might have falsified everything: ("Think I was telling you the truth? Maybe").

Their relationship seemed to be increasingly more vile, slavish, scatological, empty, humiliating, and unromantic during their truth games and daring talk. She covered him with a sheet and compared herself to "Little Red Riding Hood" and him to the "Wolf." She grabbed at one of his arms as they reenacted the childhood fable:

Jeanne: "What strong arms you have!"
Paul: "The better to squeeze a fart out of you!"
Jeanne: "What long nails you have!"
Paul: "The better to scratch your ass with."
Jeanne: (she grabbed his crotch under his clothing) "Oh, what a lot of fur you have!"
Paul: "The better to let your crabs hide in.
Jeanne: "Ooh, what a long tongue you have!"
Paul: "The better to, to stick in your rear, my dear."

Then, she reached for his penis: "What's this for?" He answered: "That's your happiness and my "ha-penis....Schlong. Prick. Joint." Their exploratory sex-talk inspired Jeanne to feel childlike again - something that Thomas was also hoping for: "I feel like a child again here." Paul felt childhood was overrated and it was not the "beautiful thing" she thought it was:

Paul: "Is it beautiful to be made into a tattletale, or forced to admire authority, or sell yourself for a piece of candy?"
Jeanne: "I wasn't like that...I was writing poems. I was drawing castles, big castles with tower. A lot of tower." [Note: A phallic symbol of sorts?]
Paul: "You never thought about sex?"
Jeanne: "No, no sex."

She admitted her first love for a young boy - her cousin named Paul - with more details than she would divulge with her boyfriend-fiancee Thomas: "My first love was my cousin Paul." He refused to listen to any more names of real people: "I'm gonna get a hemorrhoid if you keep telling me names. No names." She went on to explain her first sexual experience with him when she was 13 years old: "I fell in love with him when I heard him playing piano....He was a child prodigy. He was playing with both hands." During the heat of the summer, they went outside, sat under two trees, and separately masturbated: "I sat under the plantain tree and he sat under the chestnut. And one, two, three, we each began to masturbate. The first who came won."

Their shadows in the sunlight streaming into the room were reflected onto the wall behind them.

When he asked for her to share his first orgasmic experience ("When did you first come?"), she described how she first orgasmed while running downhill when late for school. He seemed distracted and had his back turned away. She asked: "Why don't you listen to me?" and rightly concluded that Paul was a depressing, arrogant and angry egotist:

"You know, it seems to me I'm talking to the wall. Your solitude weighs on me, you know? It isn't indulgent or generous. You're an egoist! I can be by myself too, you know."

She masturbated by herself to spite him.

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