It's almost intimidating to write anything about Bernardo Bertolucci's 'Last Tango in Paris.' Pauline Kael's analysis of the 1972 film starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider has been described by Roger Ebert as "the most famous movie review ever published." Her praise over Bertolucci's film is not to be missed. You can practically feel the rush of her excitement over a movie that many viewers today might not blink at -- a time where graphic sexuality is available at the click of a button.
While 'Last Tango's' eroticism is a powerful and primitive force -- and often parodied in conversation for it's famous scene involving a certain dairy product (let's just get that out of the way immediately) -- one of the more fascinating aspects that Kael focuses on is 'Last Tango's' ability to conjure an "emotional violence" that supersedes the basest of the movie's crude acts. As Kael puts it, 'Last Tango' brings into sharp focus "realism with the terror of actual experience."
Indeed, the film's depravity becomes the plot about an American man wandering Paris, so deeply distraught over his wife's suicide that he hides his grief in a no holds barred affair with a young French woman named Jeanne (Schneider). She's about to be married, but escapes her buffoonish fiancée and a cloistered past in the arms of the brutish man more than 20 years her senior. They begin to meet in a ramshackle apartment, which becomes the silent witness for the loneliness they both rut through and the turmoil in Paul's life he can only seem to express through semen and tears.
The apartment is 'Last Tango's' centerpiece -- personifying everything we come to learn about the characters who frequent it -- and a paradox on every level. Paul's bed is too large for the grand dwelling, which seems neverending in scale through cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's long, slow tracking shots. This idea is also emphasized through the unlimited number of split shots with foreground focus, underlining the isolation and disorientation of emotion. Mirrors echo this sentiment still, as Paul and Jeanne often communicate through them, except these looking glasses are broken shards and the filthy reflections of antique furniture. Large, sunny windows and the exquisite golden palette that dominates nearly every inch of the film betrays the apartment's morose atmosphere. It's an intimate, but incongruous composition, which Kael aptly describes as "romance and rot" becoming one.
Throughout the duration of Paul and Jeanne's long tryst, this sentiment is literalized and slowly transformed. The couple's playful banter of animal noises and the dirty dishes on the floor of an empty apartment, eventually becomes the heated demands spewed to humiliate Jeanne (butter, pig, etc.) and a dead rat in the lovers' bed. In this scene, Jeanne has pushed and pulled with Paul multiple times before she finally runs away from her finacée to be with Paul once more, wearing a vintage wedding dress worthy of the thirties cinema the film insinuates. At first, Jeanne doesn't realize the rat is in bed with her, and when she discovers it, she's terrified. Paul taunts her with its limp body, making the crass jokes we've come to expect from him.
Everything these characters have stood for is embodied in this one scene: Jeanne the fresh-faced innocent/damsel in waiting and Paul's nasty, animal menace. Nothing is what it seems, though. Jeanne's voluptuous youth hides an inner femme fatale we meet at the movie's end. Paul's brutish ways and veiled grief dissipate long enough for a moment of clarity and truth when he finally reveals his identity to Jeanne and confesses his love for her. It's too late though, because to Jeanne, Paul will always be the rat. Outside of the mythical apartment, he's just a middle-aged man with "a prostate like an Idaho potato."
While we may not be able to view 'Last Tango' through the eyes of someone like Kael -- before the movie's best and most memorable scenes were probed and plundered, and when the pulse of the film's controversy beat fast and hard -- the movie's visuals are nothing short of intoxicating. Everything that happened in that dim Paris apartment on a hazy afternoon couldn't look better, even as its inhabitants' anxieties and dramas manifest as rats and killers.
'Last Tango in Paris' is now available on Blu-ray.