Movie Review By Moira Sullivan
Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertulucci, 1972. Screening at Maria Schneider retrospective, Créteil Films de Femmes Festival, March 31, 2001.
Maria Schneider was a virtual unknown when she starred in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris in 1972. Catherine Deneuve and Dominique Sanda from Bertolucci's The Conformist were his first choices. Befriended by Birgit Bardot in her late teens where she lived for two years, Schneider went to art house cinema regularly. Visitors to Bardot told Schneider that she had to be in film and she was brought to Bertolucci's attention. Today Schneider is still a cineaste who is asked to serve on juries at film festivals such as the recent Créteil Films de Femmes Festival held March 23-April 1.
Last Tango is supposedly a love story but it is a twisted one. In it are remnants of Bertolucci's explorations into the nature of fascism in films such as 1900 and The Conformist. In these we witness the sadomasochism which kept the political machinery rolling during World War II and its aftermath. In Last Tango, a middle aged man and a young woman meet in an apartment which is for rent. They begin a love affair in which there are no names given, no history spoken. Jeanne is about to be married to a young film director, Paul is grieving his wife's recent suicide. Everything begins and turns out wrong.
Much has been written about the work of Marlon Brando in Last Tango, his improvisation of dialogue and the nice little touches he added to the film such as when he he parks his chewing gum on the bannister before sucking his last breath. The character of Jeanne is however nowhere as three dimensional as that of Paul. Rarely is there equanimity when there is an older man and young woman on screen. Regard Jeanne as an art piece to Paul's sordid life. But there is one great moment in the film for Jeanne: when she says it's over. Not a single act but one of several cruel and vicious ones on Paul's part push her over the edge.
Jeanne's future marriage to an aspiring filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is also foul. He never once asks her a direct question, but is constantly framing her for a future scene, talking at her, not to her. And Paul assaults her, humilitates her and at 'best', which is to say nothing at all, treats her as daddy's girl. Before it goes too far, Jeanne insanely contemplates Paul as being a better match than her distant cineaste lover Tom : evidence of the addictive pulls of sadomasochism. But in professing love to him, he insults her and teases her with a dead rat. He has good reasons for being a creep when he tells how his father forced him to milk the cows before a date at a basketball game back in the USA, and later shows up with animal excrement on his shoes. Therefore, early on he learns to equate love with excrement and might have driven his wife to suicide. 'Tell me about your wife', asks Jeanne when several red flags have by then already appeared.
Jeanne emotes crisply, passionately, with force. She has a zest for life which is constantly debased. It is the ultimate proof of her strength when after saying no to Paul several times that she shoots him. And right as she reasons, 'I didn't know him. Didn't know his name. He followed me and was going to rape me'. We know he violated her body several time during the course of the film. She is 20, he is a decrepit soul. Shooting him puts him out of his misery and you can't say he didn't ask for it.
The filmmakers and actors of Last Tango in Paris were brought to court in Italy for making an "obscene" movie. The charges were later dropped but it was banned in several US cities upon release. I was thrown out of a full house in Riverside, California with my mother when it opened. But when we look at this film, it signals a feeble turn towards art house eroticism which is tame by today's standards. For as Maria Schneider herself says, 'we've seen much worse'.
This is Moira Sullivan for Movie Magazine International, Paris.
© 2001 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 4/01
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