“Last Tango” misses a few steps

My reaction to “Last Tango in Paris” was located equidistantly between like and dislike. The film’s emotional volatility is probably my ultimate problem with it: “Last Tango in Paris” stirred me only occasionally, and more often than not left me indifferent, or worse, bored.

In the most famous film review by the most respected film critic of several generations, Pauline Kael penned in 1972 that “the movie breakthrough has finally come.” Thirty years later, the film that “altered the face of an art form,” as Kael said in that same New Yorker review, left me not only underwhelmed, but also uncertain as to my own worth as a viewer and reviewer of film.

There is certainly a lot to appreciate in this movie. The camerawork and cinematography are strikingly expressive and alive. Each time Paul and Jeanne (Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider) rendezvous in their clandestine apartment, the camera skulks and swings around and between them like an ignored third lover.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci masterfully uses his camera to communicate the spaces in this film, as in the first shot in the movie, when the camera spirals down, dropping like a bomb into Paul’s expletive-screaming face. It is the most startling opening image to a film I have ever seen. Later, as Paul discusses the death of his wife Rosa with his mother-in-law, Bertolucci’s camera focuses not on the two actors, but instead squeezes them out of either side of the shot, emphasizing the literal and psychological space between them.

The performances of Brando and Schneider as the two lovers left me less dazzled than I expected. I have read so much about Brando’s acting in this movie, but with the exception of a few light moments with Jeanne and an incredible virtuosic scene in which Paul grieves at the bedside of his dead wife, I found his character to be unbearably cruel, and nearly impossible to sympathize with. Paul spends most of his time with Jeanne either humiliating her or yelling at her. When he’s not violating Jeanne with a stick of butter or terrorizing her with a rat, he’s screaming at the mother of his dead wife and throwing her suitcase into the wall.

While Paul has occasional moments of great humanity and humor in “Last Tango,” most of the time he’s just a jerk. If this is an aspect of the character as it is scripted, then one can hardly blame Brando for the unpleasantness of his character. In the film, however, Paul’s outbursts of cruelty and rage often come across like ill-considered improvisations, the sudden and inexplicable decisions of a great actor enamored with his own ability to over-act.

Despite a foundation of sex in the story, all I read in press materials and reviews of the movie is that “Last Tango in Paris” is not really a film about sex. Unfortunately, this feels like a half-truth at best. The movie seems to me to be most definitely about sex, and specifically about how sex can be misused as an analgesic, to take individuals out of themselves and their pain for a few moments at a time.

The film’s most interesting connection is linking this function of sex to the function of movies themselves. When Paul and Jeanne are together they spatter their banter with lines of dialogue from old movies, and Jeanne’s filmmaker fiancé is obsessed with turning her into a character in his own movie. Paul and Jeanne’s sexual interludes in their sparsely decorated apartment are moments in which they escape the banal and painful scripts of their regular lives and write themselves into a movie of their own creation. The sex of “Last Tango in Paris” is no longer shocking for those in its audience, who have experienced much more in the way of sexual danger in the movies that came after this one, and have thus been rendered numb to even the grossest of these vicarious violations.

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