At its center, “Last Tango in Paris” is a series of sexual trysts between strangers Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) in a Paris apartment in which they meet each other by chance. Their first encounter evolves into a spontaneous copulation, with as little eroticism as you might expect from a tubby, aging Brando, nailing a girl nearly half his age.
They go on to meet regularly in their apartment, and as sparse furnishings begin to gather, a certain tenderness begins to form between the two. We come to learn what it is about the couple’s separate daily lives that puts them in this fantasy world. Paul has just lost his wife through brutal circumstances; Jeanne’s boyfriend is a bit of a bore, seemingly more interested in filming her love for him than touching and experiencing it. The bizarre apartment liaison, initially a shock, begins to exist within an array of rules set by Paul, particularly that “who” they are doesn’t matter, and that names and individual descriptions of themselves are forbidden from their illicit encounters.
The Jan. 12 matinee of the film was followed by a brief discussion, led by Alexandra Kalmanofsky, artistic director of Images Cinema. Audience members largely acknowledged that “Last Tango” is no longer the disturbing film it might once have been in 1972, but nevertheless, remains unexpectedly provoking and difficult to untangle. Perhaps for a Williams-age audience unfamiliar with the time period, the film deserves a closer look. It seems to resist generalization and certain description: it just “is.”
It is this simplicity that points to what is frustrating and perhaps to part of what was controversial about “Last Tango in Paris.” It becomes difficult to watch nameless characters that deliberately refuse to be themselves at the film’s key moments. Kalmanofsky pointed out that sex in film until “Last Tango in Paris” was there mainly to titillate audiences. When a hugely popular American actor like Brando went out and did a foreign art film with unflatteringly realistic and largely unromantic sex, a reaction was bound to occur.
While controversial, “Last Tango” didn’t change film forever, as famed film critic Paulene Kael prophesied. It may have introduced screen sex as something other than a goosebumpy matinee thrill, but that didn’t mean audiences didn’t want their eye-candy too.
In what is perhaps the film’s most well known scene, Brando and Schneider nakedly embrace, lean away from one another, and engage in a bit of sexual competition. They lean back onto their hands and both try to achieve climax without ever making physical contact. The joke, of course, is that this is impossible: you can’t have sex without touching, but it is an odd and incredibly appropriate message for a film so famous for its sex. Just watching it in the movies is not enough.
The scenes in the bedroom are probably the most meditative of the film, but for all their groundbreaking reality, these turn out to be the least engaging and most false: a nameless sex, not sensual or tactile, flickering on a movie screen.