Last Tango in Paris

(Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 1972)


There can be no doubt that Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris started a trend in intense, arthouse erotica that endures to this day – films including Intimacy (2001) and A Pornographic Affair (1999) have continued its premise of a no-questions-asked sexual affair that gives way to difficult familiarity; while writer-director Catherine Breillat (Romance, 1999), who appears in Last Tango, has made its tortured themes of Eros and Thanatos her own.

Would Last Tango have made such a splash without Marlon Brando? His semi-improvised performance is remarkable, and his characterisation as Paul alludes to many of his previous, iconic roles. His obscene, scatological monologues, replete with Bertolucci's allusions to the pessimistic theories of Reich and Bataille, still have the power to startle. And the emotions of this middle-aged, despairing, but still libidinally charged figure are palpable.

A casting coup set Maria Schneider as the young (if not exactly innocent) Jeanne against Brando. Her scenes with Jean-Pierre Léaud are deliberately superficial, a 'pop marriage' to contrast with the central, primal, relationship of animal desire and its stripping away of social illusions.

Yet Last Tango is more than the sum of its once-fashionable Big Ideas. Bertolucci's hyper-baroque mise en scène takes us beyond the lyrical elegance of Ophüls or Minnelli into a subterranean, fractured, psychic space. Partitions, mirror reflections, troublesome props and off-centre framings multiply, disorienting the viewer at every turn, whipped into a convulsive rhythm by Gato Barbieri's surging, saxophone waltzes.

A film of obstinate bloodstains and empty walls, inarticulate cries and bodily convulsions, Last Tango vigorously enacts its descent into the "womb of fear".

MORE Bertolucci: Besieged, The Dreamers, Little Buddha, The Sheltering Sky, La Luna, Stealing Beauty, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man

© Adrian Martin June 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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