There have been very few films of this stature that I have not had the chance to see over the years. Even if I don’t think I might enjoy a particular movie, there are those titles that have become so well known or a part of the culture that one feels a sense of obligation to take in. For years The Last Tango In Paris was one of those films for me. Thanks to a new Blu-ray release by MGM, I was finally afforded the opportunity.
The plot of the film is almost irrelevant. It’s not about a story at all. Marlon Brando plays a man who has just lost his wife to suicide. But we quickly learn that he had lost her really long before she took her life with a razor blade. She was having an affair with a man who lived in the hotel they ran. It was an odd affair. She insisted that her lover take on the habits and appearances of the husband she was running away from. She required that he wear an identical robe and drink the same booze, or at least have the bottle on hand. She went so far as to tear the wallpaper from the bedroom walls with her fingernails so that the room would appear as hers. One gets the impression that this would have been the more compelling story. Alas, that is not meant to be.
The “story” here surrounds Brando’s grieving hulk. He takes an apartment in an old building, apparently to be away from the scene of the suicide. There he happens to meet Jeanne (Schneider) who is admiring the old building. The two share a sudden and unexpected sexual encounter. There is no prelude to the affair, they merely take to one another. The encounter develops into a rather bizarre relationship. Jeanne has a key and drops by whenever she wishes. Paul (Brando) treats her quite badly. He doesn’t want to know her name or anything about her and her world beyond their rendezvous apartment. The relationship is abusive, but Jeanne can’t seem to stop, in spite of several attempts to break away. She is engaged to a filmmaker, who has been shooting a movie around her life. There are several side trips as we see Paul dealing with the aftermath of his wife’s death including an awkward scene where he visits with her body. While we might have a peek at Paul’s motivations, Jeanne’s are never quite made clear.
If you’re looking for any kind of well-developed plot, you need to keep looking. You won’t find it here. The script doesn’t concern itself with any of these characters’ motivations. We might understand Brando’s. Characters like Jeanne’s fiancée appear to be more symbolic than real. I never did quite get exactly what kind of film he was making. One gets the impression he’s a wannabe. The script hints at story but just doesn’t deliver. What’s worse is that it flaunts this fact at every turn.
Of course, the movie is more infamous than famous. The depictions of the sexual encounters might not be so scandalous today, but it bordered on pornographic in 1973. It was Brando’s first film after his huge success with The Godfather, and quite an odd turn for the selective actor. More important was the impact of the movie on the young 20-year old actress Maria Schneider. The part would traumatize the young woman. She was obviously bitter and claimed to have been manipulated by both Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci. She would leave the set of at least one film soon after to check herself into a mental hospital. The part seems to have plagued her life and brought her offers to similar boundary pushing roles including a part in Caligula that she turned down, professing that she was an actress and not a prostitute. The actress finally died just last month of cancer. She was only 58 years of age.
Much has been made of the sexual content of the film, and it has been called nearly pornographic. If you’re approaching this film hoping to find a mainstream film that is loaded with sensuality or eroticism, you’ll be more disappointed than you know. The best way to describe the material is misogynistic. There is nothing even remotely sensual about what you’ll find on screen here. These characters are not sharing a wonderful Paris romance. Jeanne isn’t being swept off her feet, but rather victimized much as the actress herself felt she was by the movie. You’d have to be pretty twisted to be turned on by anything you find here.
So, what of the film itself? It’s one of the hardest films I have ever had to review. It refuses to be categorized or analyzed in any meaningful way. It’s really an art-house film that masqueraded as a major motion picture. Bertolucci’s cinematography is quite out of the ordinary. Many scenes are shot in shadow or through glass that distorts the image. Some images appear intentionally poorly framed. The entire production appears to be centered on keeping the viewer somewhat on edge. I might have been able to appreciate so much of the style if the subject matter weren’t often so disturbing. It’s not a film you will soon forget, of that you can be sure. But it only appeals to a very limited taste. I don’t know exactly how to identify that taste. I’m tempted to call it perverted, but that wouldn’t necessarily be fair. I think this is the kind of movie that you know it instantly, if it’s your cup of tea. Until you know for sure, it might be best to satisfy the natural curiosity with a rental.
Last Tango In Paris is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC-MPEG-4 codec at an average of almost 40 mbps. The high-definition image presentation barely registers as high-definition. The film looks very muddy, but I can’t tell you if that was the original intent. Bertolucci works in odd shadows and unnatural yellow filters that rob the film of any natural color. It all appears so contrived and artificial that I doubt it’s possible to accurately define the quality of the transfer. Black levels are weak, and there is a tremendous amount of background noise on the image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is really a reproduction of the original mono. In any case, it’s a horrid audio presentation. Dialog is often muted and almost impossible to make out unless you crank up the sound, but be warned. If you do that you’ll be blasted by shrill and distorted saxophone leads that will jar you out of your teeth. Most of the dialog is in French. Here’s the trick. There are 16 subtitle options on this disc. You need the 16th, or the 2nd English option to get the French translations without the normal hearing-impaired titles.
Like the Brando character in the movie, the film itself is self-indulgent and abusive. Bertolucci isn’t interested in entertaining his audience. He wants you to watch him satisfy himself. He invites you to take your own needs elsewhere. That’s what I suggest you do with your money. The film is not about sex. It’s not about love. It’s about watching an actor and director indulge themselves at the viewer’s expense. “Go to the circus if you want to see love.”