MGM // 1972 // 129 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 7th, 2011
The uncut, uncensored version of the most controversial film of its era.
Jeanne: "Why do you hate women?"
Paul: "Either they always pretend to know who I am, or they pretend I don't know who they are, and that's very boring."
Paul (Marlon Brando, The Godfather) is a 45-year old American living in Paris, attempting to cope with his wife's recent suicide. Jeanne (Maria Schneider, The Passenger) is a 20-year old French girl searching for apartments. While examining one apartment in a run-down building, Jeanne discovers Paul hiding in the corner. Paul rapes Jeanne, though she does not protest much initially and doesn't seem terribly upset afterwards. The two begin a dark and unusual affair, with degrading sexual encounters blending with emotional paranoia (Paul demands that no names be uttered at any point) and introspective conversation.
Any modern review of Last Tango in Paris must be prefaced with a few basic facts: that it was quite possibility the most controversial movie of its era when it was released, that it was supposed to be the beginning of a cinematic sexual revolution that never really happened, and that critics were (and still are) sharply divided on the film's merits. Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael were the film's most prominent defenders, and Kael went so far as to declare the movie the most significant artistic achievement since Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Others have dismissed the movie as pretentious, dull, misogynist, and self-indulgent.
As someone with rather mixed feelings about Bernardo Bertolucci's daring cinematic experiment, I find it intriguing to note that the film seems so polarizing. This is a movie that the majority of critics and filmgoers either love or loathe; a film that inspires everything from angry rants to verbal symphonies of praise. You may suspect me of cowardly attempting to straddle the fence with this statement, but I genuinely believe that both sides of the argument have merit. Last Tango in Paris is both sexist and a truthful portrait of sexism, daring and dull, exhilarating and tedious, with performances ranging from inspired to miscalculated.
The contradictory nature of the film extends to Marlon Brando's much-heralded performance. It is in many ways a great piece of work; an emotionally naked turn that few other actors could have pulled off. Brando digs into Paul's dark soul and exposes both the monster and the wounded child within; simultaneously eliciting our pity even as he engages in some very ugly behavior. And yet, in this performance one can also see the beginning of Brando's embarrassing later years, with so many terrible performances defined by the kind of peculiar improvisations and character quirks that mark his work in Last Tango in Paris.
Many have declared Brando to be the greatest actor of his generation (or of any generation, for that matter), but how ironic is it a master of acting could be so dismissive towards his craft? Some of his later performance seemed to be exercises in spite; an actor intentionally bringing stale absurdities to his work knowing full well that no one would dare challenge his established genius. That attitude seems to make him a perfect choice for Paul, a man who employs affected disinterest as a means of emotional manipulation. In many scenes Paul acts as if he doesn't give a damn about Jeanne; wandering around in his own world while she yearns for his attention. During their moments of sexual interaction, he treats her very badly, but at least he is engaging her directly. Even though these moments are so brutal they sometimes make Jeanne cry; the attention that comes with them is what sticks with her.
Paul treats every woman he encounters with some measure of spite, in large part due to the fact that his relationship with his own wife was such a frustrating one. In the film's best scene, Paul mournfully rages at his wife's corpse, wondering why she was always such a mystery to him. She locked him out emotionally, and he responds by doing the same to Jeanne. Paul's "no names" ultimatum is a childish way of preserving a fantasy (Bertolluci's, to be specific -- the director claims he had fantasized about a purely sexual affair without any names or personal histories); as long as he doesn't know who Jeanne is he can continue to treat her as an object (in this case, an identity-free substitute for his wife).
The film is more a study of Paul than of Jeanne, but Maria Schneider nonetheless turns in a strong performance and manages to keep pace with Brando in every scene. She sells every hard-to-swallow action her character engages in, save for the last one -- her surprising move in the finale plays well on a symbolic level but isn't very convincing on a practical one.
Last Tango in Paris arrives on Blu-ray sporting a modest 1.85:1 transfer; a considerable improvement over previous standard-def prints of the film but still far from reference material. The image is frequently soft and looks a little grimy from time to times, so detail isn't exactly dazzling. Even so, there are very few scratches or flecks, the warm color palette is free of bleeding, natural grain has been left intact and flesh tones are mostly warm and natural. The audio is decent enough, though MGM has opted to stick with the original mono sound (though the track is lossless, which is nice). Most of the dialogue is clean (a few lines sound muffled here and there), while the inventive score (which is accessible and melodic but manages to complete avoid commenting directly on the scenes we're watching) comes through with striking clarity. Sound design is very minimal. The only supplement included is a theatrical trailer.
The film's exploration of sexuality is one of its most controversial elements, and it's certainly easy to understand way -- the infamous "butter" scene and the scene accompanied by Marlon Brando's "pig" monologue are still startling even by today's standards. While I think the film earns the right to depict these scenes and is genuinely working to explore misogyny rather than feed it, the movie's use of nudity undercuts these intentions. Schneider is frequently naked or partially naked in the film and is often shot in a leering, near-pornographic manner. Meanwhile, Brando remains fully clothed most of the time. In the few scenes where he does disrobe, Bertolucci ensures that we're never exposed to any of his naughty bits. Not that I'm particularly eager to see Little Marlon Brando, but the film's hypocrisy in this area is striking (Brando reportedly didn't want to do any nude scenes due to, um, shrinkage issues).
Additionally, the entire subplot involving Jeanne's boyfriend Tom is a bust; a would-be meta-commentary in which Tom is attempting to involve Jeanne in a film he's making. Like the film's conclusion, the plot works on a symbolic level but is wooden and unconvincing otherwise. These moments lack the power of the scenes Brando and Schneider share together, and often seem like they belong in a different movie.
Finally, I'm very disappointed that this release doesn't come with any bonus features. Whatever you may think of it, this is an important, controversial film which practically demands discussion and analysis. That we're handed nothing more than a trailer for the film is a huge letdown. MGM really dropped the ball on this one.
Though this Blu-ray release doesn't exactly offer much incentive to upgrade, Last Tango in Paris remains a compelling, occasionally haunting film. While it falls short of being a masterpiece, at times it's nothing short of masterful.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17