Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? A movie that is very pleased with its own frankness about sex.
What did I get? In a 1944 essay on Salvador Dalí, George Orwell wrote, “People are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals.” Last Tango‘s memorable mix of artistic courage and symptomatic male entitlement calls the quotation to mind. It’s a really interesting movie, but also vaguely annoying, deserving our admiration and our mockery, à la Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as jacuzzi “lovahs” on Saturday Night Live. Orwell was so right: I, too, split the difference.
From the perspective of 2012, if your sympathies aren’t with Maria Schneider’s Jeanne, there may be something wrong with you. Today the authentic gains of feminism have devolved into a form of stalemate, and it may not be possible to accord Marlon Brando’s Paul the requisite share of viewerly pity. Indeed, if Paul’s semblable were to turn up in a movie today, the director would almost certainly treat him as a figure of fun or disrespect. If affectionate mockery was Bertolucci’s intent — I doubt it — he’s a far greater artist than I ever suspected.
Widower, male, American, middle-aged — Paul’s postulate of unchecked sexual expression flows from many tributaries, feelings of which I suspect Brando himself was not exempt, artist or no. (Was this autobiography? Did anyone claim it to be so?) It’s difficult not to see Brando’s actorly license as comparably suspect, a flimsy mask for Brando’s, or Bertolucci’s, own issues. In the end, this blurriness thwarts Last Tango‘s success as a work of art; it’s the equivalent of watching a knife thrower perform while tipsy. The feat may impress, but the audience craves assurances of mastery. Brando’s occasional lapses of control, such as the scene in which Paul insists on his dead wife’s atheism to his wife’s sister, unfortunately leave one in doubt.
Paul’s seductions of Jeanne usually take the form of bullying, even to the point of rape — an aspect the film itself does not escape, quite. (According to Wikipedia, the bracing scene in which Paul uses butter to penetrate Jeanne left Schneider feeling “a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,” which makes both scene and movie more than a tad difficult to watch.)
It’s difficult to imagine an actor of our time getting away with what Brando does here — until the image of Daniel Day-Lewis with a napkin on his face in There Will Be Blood floats into one’s consciousness. At the time, newly celebrated due to his work in The Godfather, which had opened a few months earlier, the performance of Brando got all the attention. For me, this time around anyway, it was Schneider who seemed impressive, flickering from sex kitten to trendy fashionista to womanly woman on demand. At various moments she physically resembles women as disparate as Geneviève Bujold and Brigitte Bardot — or perhaps those two women look more alike than I had realized? Brando is the bull around which Schneider’s torera dodges and feints.
Somehow, Bertolucci’s subconscious managed to get it right. Possibly against his intentions, we’re confronted with two egotistical males and the sympathetic, flexible woman they badger. On the one side, Paul’s browbeating existentialist, if such he be; on the other, American-monicker’d Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an experimental film director who adores above all “Rita Hayworth! Joan Crawford! Kim Novak!” et cetera. For all intents and purposes, Jeanne’s choices are Norman Mailer and François Truffaut. Both made for appealing idealized male role models, and both were needed in the public sphere at one time, but, now that they’ve fulfilled that purpose, we’ve gone someplace else. Today, Jeanne’s simpler, less pompous humanity rings through.
You can’t trash a movie as brave as this, a movie as good as this. But Last Tango‘s moment isn’t our moment anymore, and it feels like the movie’s true subject is the movie’s own bravery. It doesn’t feel honest, it feels “honest.”
What here smacks of 1973? What doesn’t? Sex! Art! Cinema! Yeah!
IMDB score: 7.1
My score: 8
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Writer: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli, and Agnès Varda
Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi, Giovanna Galletti, Gitt Magrini, Catherine Allégret, Luce Marquand, Marie-Hélène Breillat, Catherine Breillat, Dan Diament, Catherine Sola, Mauro Marchetti, Jean-Pierre Léaud
IMDB synopsis: While looking for an apartment, Jeanne, a beautiful young Parisienne, encounters Paul, a mysterious American expatriate mourning his wife’s recent suicide. Instantly drawn to each other, they have a stormy, passionate affair, in which they do not reveal their names to each other. Their relationship deeply affects their lives, as Paul struggles with his wife’s death and Jeanne prepares to marry her fiance, Tom, a film director making a cinema-verite documentary about her.