Friday, February 25, 2011

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Death of a Ladies' Man

directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
starring Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider,
Jean-Pierre Léaud

Someone tell Clarence Worley in True Romance that he's got shit taste in men. Never mind that hick momma's boy Elvis — the cultural revolution credited to Presley's swiveling hips was kick-started at the dawn of the decade by Marlon Brando. Fuck screaming teenyboppers on Ed Sullivan — Brando was lit dynamite for adults; sweating and scratching his way through the black-and-white artifice of A Streetcar Named Desire, tossing your radio out the window and tearing your Scarlett O'Hara's playhouse down and making a catchphrase out of the name Stella, to boot. If Elvis, as Lester Bangs once said, "alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives," then Brando's very screen presence — its sheer primal charge — showed the whole world that it liked it up the ass, that sex was best when taken and not asked for, that borderline mental instability with a hint of violence was the fastest way to moisten a vulva.

And that's to say nothing of the revolution in acting that he fathered — the hyper-realism too real for real life, the mumbling, the soul-searching, the uncertainty, the self-indulgent but revealing improvs, the James Deans and Nicholsons and Pacinos and Hoffmans and De Niros and Sean Penns and Val Kilmers and Edward Nortons and James Gandolfinis that squirted out every time he squatted over a soundstage to let out a fart during rehearsal. In the wake of his Stanley Kowalski and his Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, and even his bad-ass biker in The Wild One, thirty-odd years of mannered acting before him suddenly seemed as authentic as Milli Vanilli limping onstage behind Curtis Mayfield. The silver screen was all the richer just for the fact of Brando's mother having ever met his father. Even in the years of his self-parodic decline, even while he pocketed million-dollar paychecks for crappy films and reduced his gift to whatever could fit inside an oddball, glorified cameo, Marlon Brando remained the father of modern screen acting — the finest goddamn thespian ever to tread God's salty green earth.

Exhibit A for the defense: Bernardo Bertolucci's masterpiece Last Tango in Paris. Students of "controversial cinema" already know the basics — Last Tango in Paris. Synonymous with erotic films. A dirty grandfather to fuck-fueled filmic descendants such as In the Realm of the Senses and 9 Songs. Slapped with an X rating in the era of Deep Throat. Censored or banned in various countries. The corner where porno chic slammed head-on into the European art film. Its scandalous effect on the 1972 New York Film Festival. Maria Schneider's ample tits and ampler bush. "Get the butter."

Maria Schneider is blithe Parisienne Jeanne, all of twenty years old and set to marry a young documentary filmmaker when she breezes into the vacant flat she's just rented and discovers Paul (Brando). Paul's an American expatriate, hiding in darkness from the fact that his French wife recently slit her wrists — and his remedy for the gaping black hole of emotional numbness inside him is to take this bourgeois little French girl by force, right up against the wall. Naturally, Paul's bestial-daddy schtick — no names, no details, only sex — is exactly the spanking that baby-girl Jeanne needs deep down inside. Naturally, Jeanne comes back for more, meeting Paul for afternoon trysts in the very abode she's soon to occupy with her hubby-to-be. Naturally, Paul's psycho-sexual violation leads to both mutual-obsession-as-personal-journey and escalating acts of sexual degradation that obviously impressed the makers of 9 1/2 Weeks. Naturally, what it all adds up to is Stanley Kowalski, still pulling Stella down off them columns, twenty years later.

I say "naturally" not in the peeved tones of some cobwebbed-cunt feminist who wonders why every time filmmakers purge their psyches, we get these vengeful-schoolboy fantasies of women panting under the boot of male domination — no. Rather, I say it from the standpoint of a man who knows all too well that Jeannes exist in multitudes. I say it with the personal knowledge that fucking with desperate abandon is a stronger emotional Band-Aid than even drugs or booze; that near-rape and a bit of expert subjugation can earn an angry, wounded gent the Daddy Substitute badge with just about any needy, emotionally unformed woman he chooses.

Though Schneider's double roll-away in the aftermath of that shocking first fuck is a bit stagy, every detail bears the sweat of authentic doings — the touch is sure. Watch the way she succumbs to Brando's gorilla embrace. Watch the debauched parody of her upcoming nuptials in the way that he scoops her up before crossing the threshold of acceptable behavior. Glory in the offhanded way that he fastens his coat and picks the for-rent sign off the wall, as they step out into daylight and stagger off in separate directions with nary a word — he, of course, reveling in the joy of having just shattered her porcelain dollhouse of a world.

And who wouldn't swing the mallet? Maria Schneider is the world's cutest little monkey here — a tousle-haired, beauty-marked little Monchhichi poking her head out from beneath ruffled layers of assumed propriety, just to stick her tongue out at you while her elders aren't watching. She's a naughty, precocious brat whose mangled English and pendulous cleavage and furry Gallic twat you'd like to nestle yourself in and build a home for the winter, but only after you've bent her over your knee and hiked up her skirt and given her bare ass a proper reddening.

Sure, Jeanne's fiancé — the callow young filmmaker who can only see the world through a camera's viewfinder, who needs the relative order that a film set imposes upon the messiness of real life — is a cliché so old its beard is graying. For all we know, it's Bertolucci's self-commentary as a filmmaker, his weird, masochistic fantasy of losing his woman to some much worldlier, older gent. But it works here. Clearly, Jeanne the bourgeois little French girl is straining for some sort of authenticity in her life; something real, something that hasn't been manufactured and scripted and shaped then re-shaped for a potential audience — and if it takes getting raped on the floor of a vacant apartment by a depressed middle-aged weirdo whose name she doesn't even know, then c'ést la vie. Neat trick, that: setting up extraordinarily scripted circumstances as the emotional prison from which Schneider flees into the unpredictable arms of Brando, the King of Sweaty Improv.

Here's the twist, though: as corruptible and pliable as she initially seems to Paul, with all his worldly wisdom and graying American alpha-maleness, it's Jeanne who's able to call it a day and move on, unscathed. An older, wiser woman would have continued succumbing to Paul, conceding her mind and her soul, possibly until there was very little of her left. It would have served her needs — penance for a normal human life full of messy little lies and casual deceptions. It would have put its buttery fingers up the ass of her soul and touched a pulse that no emissary from the straight world of missionary position and Sunday-service-with-the-kids would be able to find at that point. Here, though, Paul's effect is one of psychic bruises, not scars; ultimately, Jeanne's too young and too restless — too incapable of any kind of lasting bond — for his attempted emotional decay to take root. She's nowhere near as damaged as he is — not at her age, with its attendant lack of true soul-weariness.

The bulls-eye that this self-loathing wreck of a man is really aiming at is the one painted on his own chest. He becomes ensnared in his own web, he brings himself crashing down. It's suicide via futile emotional yearning, and suicide — resting, at last, beside his pigfucker cunt of a wife in whatever eternal flophouse passes for an afterlife — is what every ounce of him is crying out for, from the moment we meet him. Bertolucci shaped the role of Paul just for Brando and wooed him — then fought with him — just to seduce him into the performance we see before us. Brando seems very much to be Acting in certain scenes but that only adds to the intrigue and the tension for people waiting to see what the Great Improviser is going to come up with next. Tony Soprano once likened therapy to taking a shit, and that's exactly what it feels like here: we can feel Brando searching, straining — as in a long monologue about drunken parents and a farmer with a clay pipe that Paul remembers from his youth. It makes us feel like dirty little psychological voyeurs, privy to a famously guarded man prodded forward by his director, as he digs around in his guts and bares long-hidden psychological wounds. Half the time — despite Brando's disavowals (and, on occasion, flat-out dismissals) to the press — we don't know whether it's Paul coming unraveled before our very eyes or Marlon Brando himself. The fact that Brando cold-shouldered Bertolucci for almost fifteen years after Tango speaks obviously to the latter. 

Last Tango ends up going rather out of its way to make Paul's depressed visage a Mount Rushmore for modern male doubt and alienation. It's all in the way that Vittorio Storaro's ace cinematography positively caresses Brando's profile, rendering him a living statue before our very eyes. Iconographic images abound in Tango, swathing Brando in Paris-au-Printemps atmosphere and rotting, late-afternoon, autumnal colors — apparently, half the movie takes place between 4:30 and 5:30 in the evening. It's the loneliness, the isolation, the fundamental separation between characters that determines the visual design here. Shadows. Shadows. Darkness. Paul's late-night visit to the body of his wife is enough to make you forget about "I coulda been a contenda" and Don Corleone with Michael in the garden. Never before had an actor dug so deep on camera, teetered so wildly and fearlessly on the precipice over self-parody and ridiculousness, just to bring undiluted human pain to the screen.

Of course, to seen-it-all modern eyes, the much talked-about sexual content isn't much more extreme than what you'd find in a thousand unrated, straight-to-DVD productions — and if you're only tuning in because you heard about the film's X rating or the infamous scene in which Brando sodomizes Schneider with the aid of some handy butter, you're in for a serious disappointment. Something black and unknowable beats at the heart of Last Tango in Paris — that's what it's really about. It's like the time I was sick with the flu and scared to death about my impending move to L.A. and had Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly" on constant rotation, to the extent that I couldn't move, couldn't budge, couldn't respond to the unyielding whine of my phone, couldn't pull myself up out of the murk of why-bother-nothing-ever-works-out-the-way-you-want-it-to — to the extent that I seriously, if fleetingly, considered making a noose out of one of my neckties and pulling an Ian Curtis right there in my stuffy little suburban apartment, all alone. And I had no idea why. And still don't. It's like diving headlong into the endless air-raid siren that ends Portishead's Third, letting the blackness envelop you like a fluffy warm blanket, lulling you to sleep as you sink deeper and deeper.

Like Shampoo, Tango's an honest post-Sixties examination of just what the emotional costs of free love and no-strings sex really are — what an utter sham it is most of the time, despite the bald-faced assurances men and women lob at each other in the heat of the moment. Ultimately, all Paul wants to do is crawl back into the womb — his mother's, perhaps his dead wife's — signified by his overly Freudian love for the fetal position. Only when Paul is with Jeanne is there an emphasis on shared shots, togetherness — and even then, loneliness creeps in around the edges and dominates. Loneliness is each character's shadow at all times, even when — or especially when — naked with another human being. Paul confronts Jeanne with this, the essential loneliness of human existence — "you're all alone and you won't be able to face that until you look death right in the face." "Go right up into the ass of death," he tells her, an exhortation that could have come from his Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

Brando comes off as half-insane here, as he likely was in real life. By the end, Paul's mutated into a stalker straight out of some taut psychological thriller — suicidal provocation as a way out of a world he no longer understands, a world he can no longer bear to slog his way through. Of course, the tragedy of the film is that, despite all his bullshit about not knowing each others' names and trying to keep things as detached as possible, Paul falls for Jeanne.

Finally, after his wife's suicide, after trying every thing possible to keep himself closed off to the possibility of love — to avoid pain — he finds a ray of sunshine in this soiled French pastry, he finds himself opening up to her, finds himself falling in love with her. His fate is sealed, the moment he tells her this. And why? Well, Jeanne does exactly as Paul suggests — she looks right up into the ass of death, sees the reflection of her own future loneliness in Paul — and she pulls back, she retreats, she flees back into the arms of her callow filmmaker fiancé. It's artifice over reality, manufactured image over edifying ugliness. It's marriage as the death of true passion, as it often is in life; marriage as the safe, well-heated, hundred-thousand-dollar, white-picket-fence womb of financial security and social respectability that Jeanne retreats to, as all women must. And Paul is left alone — truly, inconsolably alone; stuck deep up the cavernous, putrid ass of death with his own loneliness once again.

Of course, we never find out why Paul's wife committed suicide. Paul's tragedy is that he comes to understand why, only too well.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


BRENT said...

I better watch myself and not 'gush' over your review of Tango as I might get a severe growling!!
Well as one of the 'two' who do actually read your blog (!!!) I had to stop by and say I like what you have written about this incedible film.
I watched it last night for the first ever and at first found it too arty for my taste but by half way through I was mesmerized.
I can certainly add nothing to what you have already written. Just stopped by to say I really like what you have stated so well and hope you don't mind me saying so!
I am writing a review on it on my own blog soon and am going to direct my 'two readers' to come over to your blog and read your piece so they can 'gush' too!
It is a very good summary of an a
geunine cinematic masterpeice. Will be watching it again soon to be immersed in Brando's seemingly inexhaustable talent.
As a by line here, I don't know if you are aware but the AFI rate Bogart as the number one American actor of all time and have Brando at three. James Stewart is second.
I personally rate Brando well ahead of Bogart but for me Stewart is the master and I would put Brando second.
What say you? I love Bogie but I just don't believe he was the best of the three. I suppose it really is a moot point as personal opinions are different and we can't all share the same ones.

BRENT said...

Oops I made a mistake. Carey Grant is rated second, Stewart third and Brando forth.

Scott Is NOT A Professional said...

Brent -

I was referring to the fact that, according to my blog stats, probably 80% of my traffic to this site is for the grainy old titty shots I put up quite awhile ago. Granted:

a) No one put a gun to my head and forced me to put those up :) and...

b) I don't exactly blog often enough to balance out the content of this site

Having said that, I suppose I was a bit naive. I genuinely didn't expect people to be that enthralled with Nancy Allen's tits at the beginning of "Carrie" (for example), I just thought it was cheeky and fun to throw up some of my favorite moments of cinematic tittage.

Thanks for the compliments, though. I first discovered "Last Tango" back in college and I, too, found it a bit too "arty" at first. But something just drew me back into the film and, with time, my appreciation for it only grew. Like many films, I appreciated it more as I grew into adulthood, when I could see the emotional truth contained within many of the scenes and the characterizations.

Stewart over Brando? I wouldn't quibble with that. After all, Stewart was in one of my four favorite films -- "Vertigo" -- and I don't think anyone could have carried that role off better than him. Basically, I respect the history of innovation that certain actors and directors are responsible for. I'm not a huge John Wayne fan, and I don't think he could hold a candle to a Brando as just a pure actor, but if some list put Brando and Wayne near each other in the top ten, it definitely wouldn't upset me.

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