Last Tango in Paris (1973) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Massimo Girotti
By Alan Bacchus
Anyone familiar with ‘Last Tango in Paris’ can’t really say or hear ‘pass the butter’ without a least a slight pause, double-take, or smirk of recognition to the now infamous line of dialogue uttered by Marlon Brando near the midpoint of this film. Of course, it refers to the use of that smooth, spreadable substance used by Brando’s character to lubricate a certain orifice on the body of the character of Jeanne, as played by Maria Schneider. After the butter is passed the scene then plays out with Brando’s character climbing on top of Jeanne and performing an act sodomy which would inexorably split these two voracious lovers.
Could you imagine Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks or Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon playing this scene and the effect on their image? Marlon Brando, on the other hand, had disdain for image, his role in pop culture and most of all of his celebrity endeavours. Marlon Brando, as soon as he came to Hollywood, achieved an instant fame, virtually unrivalled in the history of cinema – a persona shaped as much by his phenomenal acting talent as his rebelliousness. And so his role as Paul, the grieving widower who strikes up a torrid affair with said young Parisian girl, Jeanne, he’s shattering his image and daring his audience to hate him.
The character of Paul is one of the most self-destructive characters in cinema history. Like Nicolas Cage’s drunken death wish character in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, without saying those exact words, is on a collision course with death. In the magnificent opening shot we see Bertolucci’s camera push in on Paul screaming in pain. We’ll eventually come to learn that his wife had recently and inexplicably committed suicide. As he wanders aimlessly through the fabulous Parisian portico a spry young girl (Maria Schneider) skips on by. He’s instantly attracted to her carefree innocence, and so when they meet coincidentally in an empty rental apartment the thick sexual energy hanging in the air cause them to break out into spontaneous fornication.
As directed by Bertolucci, the sex is rough, dirty, sloppy, Paul barely even taking his clothes off, feebly fumbling to ‘stick it in her’, and then falling helplessly on the ground after climaxing. Never had we seen sex on screen like that – so unromantic, so primal.
This is the energy which moves the film forward. With very little traditional plot, Bertolucci achieves a heightened state of emotional transcendence, a flow of feelings and gestures fuelled by the energy of the two characters as well as the energy of the city of Paris. Much of the dialogue between Brando and Schneider is improvised, and arguably, not even improvised very well. We can see Brando even struggling to find words to express his character’s feelings. Paul’s admonition to Jeanne against using names with each other for instance, is an awkward scene, but with a rawness that captivates as much as it confounds.
Outside the apartment, movement is important. We rarely see Paul and Jeanne together, but when Jeanne plays around with her filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Leaud) or when Paul performs the tasks of closing off her wife's estate, the characters seem to be in perpetual motion. And in time with Bertolucci’s expressive camera, stylistically the film flows like a couple of dancers moving in perfect synchronicity.
In 1973 we find Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro working together at the height of the creativity. Perhaps less so with Storaro whose career flourished into the 1990’s but for Bertolucci, who can argue against his command of the camera in both ‘The Conformist’ (1971) and ‘Last Tango in Paris’ as nothing short of perfection? Bertolucci elegantly moves his camera to enhance the emotions of the characters, which lives and breathes as much as his characters. His colour palette, aided by Storaro’s lighting and Philippe Turloe’s art direction, finds even more depth in the character’s lives. Take the costuming of Paul and Jeanne. In their first sexual encounter Paul is wearing a dark tan overcoat, which virtually blends into the colour scheme of the apartment while Jeanne’s white furry jacket in contrast stands out as a freshly bloomed flower in a world pain and suffering.
While ‘The Conformist’ was clearly a ‘director’s movie’, Bertolucci freely gives up “Last Tango in Paris” to Brando alone. As mentioned above, from the day Brando first set foot on either a theatrical stage or a studio stage he’s had an aura of innate talent for the art of performance. His talent is not som much in in characterization, or even emotion, but a screen magnetism which cannot be taught or bottled. Even in Brando’s worst movies – ie. virtually the entire decade of the 60’s was one bomb after bomb – he is captivating. In “Last Tango” he is at his most alluring. Bertolucci and his cinematographer maximize this star power for greatest effect. And so, even when Marlon Brando says ‘pass the butter’ then sodomizes Maria Schneider using we never hate him for it, but pity him and never cease to love him.