Two-Stepping to The Last Tango

After you've seen Brando in the nude (rear view only), what else can there be? Answer: A major film achievement.

April 1973By Comments

FOR STARTERS, LET’S CUT THROUGH all the official and semi-official pre-sell stuff about Last Tango in Paris, ranging from orgasmic cineastic euphoria after its October 14 New York Film Festival showing (non-euphoric reactions don’t get reprinted in the ads) to cover stories (it’s post-Inauguration dulltime on the national and international scenes) to smarmy witties on the Johnny Carson show (where sodomy is still one of the taboo topics—at the moment).

We are not facing an ultimate cultural milestone: Le Sacre du Printemps or even Nude Descending a Staircase this is not. Nor is it a moral milestone. The year, need we note, is 1973, ten years since we thought La Dolce Vita a bit racy and The Silence “dirty”; I Am Curious (Yellow), with its simulations has come and long gone and Deep Throat, with its actualities is upon us. To each his own erotica and shock threshhold. It would be a pity—more specifically, an insult to this new Bernardo Bertolucci film and a disappointment to the thrill-seeker—if those who haven’t worked up the courage to go to one of the hard-core movies plan to get their kicks the respectable way by going to see Last Tango. For the newest Marlon Brando film is a highly personal work by him and by the 31-year-old film-maker whose talents have become more and more apparent, his artistry more and more mature with Before the Revolution, Spider’s Strategem and The Conformist.

It is, however, a strong film in its sexual depictions. Not, mind you, that you’re going to see the “real” thing as in Schoolgirl or Mona or Throat, although indeed Brando and Maria Schneider create the illusion. And although the Brando backside is bared, the privacy of his public parts is sustained even at the sacrifice of truth, in that great male-chauvinist tradition that of course presents us with all of Miss Schneider that there is to see. Where new sexual ground is broken in the “respectable” film, however, is in the simulation of sodomy and anal stimulation, both in sado-masochistic terms, and in the spewing of language more usually associated with the viscera and with more esoteric sexual practices.

The foregoing is part warning, part preparation, for it is not what Last Tango is all about. If you cannot accept this sort of content, however, you can thereafter reduce this film to simply a depiction of everyman’s (and undoubtedly some woman’s) erotic fantasy. A brooding expatriate American and a feckless Parisienne of twenty meet in a vacant apartment; their attraction is instant, their sexual encounter overwhelming. The man moves in minimal furniture, including a large mattress, establishes the rule of no names and no self-identity, and they meet regularly, the girl in complete subjection to the man’s every wish and desire. Her degradation continues until—here the filmmaker particularizes the fantasy—she decides to break away. The man—let us be simplistic—realizes that sexuality cannot exist in a vacuum and that he “loves” the girl. He pursues her with drunken ardor but, after a cursory hommage to their past passion during an interlude in a tango palace where a contest is being held (the title moment), they race on to a melodramatic—indeed, near-operatic—tragic ending.

This is what an antagonist can reduce the film to—and in lesser, or indeed any other, hands, it would bear this reduction. For the film is Brando and he provides not only the most satisfying and complete characterization since his Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and One-Eyed Jacks performances, but also two sequences of such power, of such piercing emotional intensity and perception, that he brings an aura of greatness to the entire film. It is, alas, only an aura, for the film is all machismo, filled with such detestation of and contempt for women that its universality is limited; its plot detailing and mechanics tend to the pop and the slick and the self-indulgent, marred by the contrivances of theatricals that replace the insights of drama, and so the artistry is flawed.

Brando’s Paul is, in effect, Stanley Kowalski grown world-weary with writing, boxing, bongo-playing and the women of exotic places in his past; he has settled down as the kept husband of the proprietress of a fleabag hotel, with her lover ensconced in a room of his own. And his wife has, at the film’s outset, committed the ultimate inhumanity: she has committed suicide without apparent motive or explanation. And it is in a monologue at the side of the bed where her body has been laid out in necrophiliac loveliness that Brando, spewing forth the love-hatred of guilt, the agony of complete rejection, the desperation of one faced with final silences, give’s the film its raison d’etre and proves his greatness.

Small wonder that the guilt-ridden man is ready to wreak his vengeance and prove his manhood upon the willing flesh and vacuous mind of the compliant girl, determined to give nothing of himself beyond the masterful maleness.

The girl, a lovely frizzy-headed creature, is a far less interesting character, incredible to me and, I suspect, a contrivance and tool for the moviemen. She is all of the flesh, dashing about Paris with her fiánce, ultra-boyish of course in Jean-Pierre Leaud’s embodiment, who, for the convenience of the film, is busily making a movie about her for television. This device, obviously, permits Miss Schneider to reveal her past and present, offers us all sorts of pleasing interludes away from the love-nest, and allows the plot to thicken with the location of a gun that belonged to her father. But the girl as person is never quite credible; so “open” a girl would hardly be in such instant sexual thrall even to Brando, let alone the brooding Paul. Even her decision to marry seems more plot device than self-determination and certainly her final act is totally out of the character that has drifted in and out of experience without introspection, that would, in fact, revel in the final reversal of needs. But perhaps even the drift to tragedy is to the point.

Nor are the surrounding women any more than “service” characters. The dead wife remains an enigma and thereby a villain; her mother, a kindly woman, is a religious fool to be tormented; the girl’s mother is a babbling bourgeoise, and even a prostitute who comes to the hotel must be so revolting a specimen that even her prospective client rejects her.

This anti-womanism permeates the film; but admittedly it is in keeping with its personal viewpoint and, if anything, enforces the essential theme of the rejected man seeking to reassert himself and discovering that it is the human, rather than sexual response that man must live by. One can, if belief in the girl is sustained, see the lesson through her eyes and realize an almost instinctual rejection of the commonality of sensual experience alone, even though her final rejection comes after the man has offered her his person instead of his body. For his person, made foolish by drink and out-dated as the rituals of the tango, is not to the taste of a chic video-oriented daughter of the discreet bourgeoisie.

There are any number of avenues to explore in retrospect, the question of middle-aged machismo, of public performance and private image—and the reverse thereof. For the duration of the film Brando and Bertolucci, past masters at holding the viewer’s eye, hold one’s attention to their chosen path. It is not a pleasant one but it is a fascinating and absorbing one—and it stays to nag at the mind. This is the excellence of their achievement, their bold approach to an intimate experience in terms that cause us to explore ourselves. And that, of course, is the point.

Robert Bolt has written and directed a movie called Lady Caroline Lamb and indeed Sarah Miles bears that name in the course of his penny-dreadful plotting. It’s replete with chandeliers and pages and absolutely delicious moments provided by Sir Laurence Olivier as the plain-spoken Wellington; Sir Ralph Richardson as the slow-spoken George, and, in larger portrait, Margaret Leighton as Caroline’s shrewdly antagonistic mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne. But beyond these creations, there is neither historic fact nor rational fancy in this ludicrous tale of a near-nutty lady who picks up an impoverished unknown young man at a prize-fight and winds up weeping and chasing after the toast of London ladies, throwing tantrums, bedding the Duke of Wellington, near-ruining her husband’s political career and dropping dead “of a broken heart” with such a thud in England that her husband feels the vibrations in heart-clutching terms all the way across Cardigan Bay to Dublin.

And this from the man who earned status as playwright and screenwriter of A Man for All Seasons (directed by Fred Zinnemann) and is, perhaps, the foremost writer of “thinking man” screen spectaculars, among them Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, the latter an original story, all directed by David Lean. One can understand Bolt’s desire to direct his own script. One can even better understand his creating the vehicle for his wife, Miss Miles, who had longed to play Caroline. But the result is a creakingly old-fashioned costume melodrama splattered with historic facts that succeed only in clashing with the fiction. Its romantic interludes emerge as either left-overs from soap operas of the Thirties or presumably unintentional satire on Lean’s lusher moments in Ryan’s Daughter.

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