Last Tango in Paris

Reviewed By Tony Hansen
Posted 07/30/03 23:08:53

"Note to Brando co-stars: fear ad-libs"
5 stars (Awesome)

"Last Tango in Paris" is a great film that raises many questions -- not the least of which is whether or not you can use margarine as an anal lubricant. Butter? Yes. Clearly. But margarine? The issue is not so simple because, let's face it, margarine is not as pure as butter; it's not as natural. In the end, we may never know the answer to this perplexing question. It's something that, in my opinion, is probably best left to the sex scientists with their sex experiments.

However, what Last Tango in Paris does reveal, and intelligently so, is world of debasement, of death, of sex, of depression. It's a world in which two anonymous people can, instead of sublimating their sexual problems with worldly pursuits, sublimate their worldly problems with sexual pursuits. And it has Marlon Brando -- not the mockery of a human being who we see today, but a virile Brando. One who charges the screen.

Brando is Paul, an expatriate American living in Paris. As the film begins, his wife has just died. It's a violent death, a suicide by razor. While considering a new apartment, Brando's Paul crosses paths with a beautiful young French girl, Jeanne (Maria Schneider). The two look around the apartment, discuss who is going to take it, and Paul pounces on Jeanne and quietly rapes her. This starts off a degrading, yet oddly romantic, sex romp where Paul and Jeanne meet daily and drown their sorrows in sexual escapes that would make even Charlie Sheen blush. There's only one rule -- no names.

Last Tango in Paris plays like the type of film that Ingmar Bergman would make if Ingmar Bergman decided to make a pornographic film. It is passionate. It is erotic. You will probably get an erection. Yet, the film is deceptive as well. Bernardo Bertolucci fills his screen with a soft focus and natural lighting, particularly in the scenes of lecherous eroticism in the apartment. It's a way of making these scenes feel delicate and inviting, but the action on the screen often acts as a counterpoint to this mis-en-scene. There are rapes. There is sodomy. There's Brando flinging a dead rat around promising to eat the creature but leave the asshole for Jeanne. Ahhh. It's sooo romantic.

Again, this approach is counterpunctual, as is Bertolucci's decision to cloud Paul's life outside the apartment with darkness. Not surprisingly, Paul's disposition is one of murk. He has been left by his wife's suicide a broken man who desires to feel something, anything. This explains to a certain extent his pursuit of anonymous sexual fulfillment, but it says something more about Paul. He needs. He needs explanations and justifications.

For a character who is so inwardly explosive, Brando is perfect. In fact, one of the things that is truly interesting about Last Tango in Paris is the way in which Brando, the man, has grown into what Paul, the character, would conceivably become. It's not difficult to believe that if we continued to watch Paul grow and develop that he would become as Brando -- a truculent, self-righteous, piece of lard fudge. Is it art echoing life or life echoing art?

In the end, Brando and Last Tango in Paris are brilliant. Their impressively and importantly sexual. This is exactly the type of film that the Lester Bangs of Almost Famous refers to when he says that all art is sex disguised as love and love disguised as sex. Last Tango in Paris is art. Truly, is there anything more powerful on film than Brando's performance here? When Brando hovers over his dead wife's body and oscillates between anger and love it makes up for all of the Don Juan DeMarcos and The Island of Dr. Moreaus.

However, for those who need something more traditionally romantic, or innocent, or unambiguous, "Last Tango in Paris" may elicit a response of "I can't believe it's not better."

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