Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twelve

12tango

#12 — Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
I’ll admit that I don’t even have the time to watch everything I want to (an issue to which some of the omissions from this list may attest), much less immerse myself in the background of the various films I view and love. I often find the backstories behind various productions fascinating, but I’m just as often almost completely oblivious to the tumult or pleasure that may have taken place behind the scenes, even on landmark films. So it wasn’t until Maria Schneider died last year that I had any notion that the star of Last Tango in Paris was haunted throughout her life by her participation in the film, explaining as late as 2007 that she felt raped by the experience, blaming both her director and co-star for the violation. In fact, I saw several film writers use the act of eulogizing Schneider as opportunity to freshly decry Last Tango in Paris, likening it to an abominable snuff film. Given everything, I’m sympathetic to that sentiment, but I also can’t personally sign my name to it. My conflict is motivated by something simple and, for those who detest the film, probably as unforgivable, in its own way, as the actions of the filmmakers: I think Last Tango in Paris is engrossing, powerful and utterly brilliant.

I don’t believe that the quality of the art justifies any level of abuse, but my appreciation of the work also isn’t necessarily tainted by exterior knowledge of an artist’s infractions. To use of the most unseemly examples, I detest Roman Polanski’s mid-seventies crime that has led to him being a fugitive from the U.S. ever since (and, make no mistake, by his own account of the incident he committed a crime, even by the somewhat laxer standards of the day), but that doesn’t mean I can’t see his films separately, assessing them wholly on their own merits. Similarly, I may have a differently colored view of the genesis of Last Tango in Paris, but I can’t deny the incredible impact of what Bernardo Bertolucci brought to the screen, even though the twisted sexual relationship it depicts has unfortunate parallels with the miseries Schneider reported.

In the film, Schneider plays a young Parisian woman who’s potential interest in renting an apartment happens to coincide with that of an older American who in deep in the throes of mourning. Almost immediately, the two fall into a sexual tryst built on hedonism and agreed-upon anonymity. They can interlace their couplings with highly philosophical conversations, but personal information is strictly forbidden, testing the very impulses of people who come together, even grow dependent on one another. As the film grows deeper and darker, it seems to question the nature of what people need, how they seek it from others and the frighteningly casual ways individuals lash out at one another. The give and take between the two people is a psychologically fraught balance between need and power.

As for Schneider’s performance, it’s as loose and wonderfully unaffected as might be expected considering she was essentially an acting neophyte when selected for the role. Interesting as she is, the more fascinating performance–the one that significantly helps in elevating the film from a curiosity to a masterwork–is delivered by Marlon Brando as the American. He was still a relatively young man, still in his forties, when the film was made, but he already has the lumbering bearing of a person who life has buffered into submission, someone who is waiting pensively for the end. Brando was in the process of artistically checking out by this point in time, refusing to learn lines and instead placing cue cards around the set (which Bertolucci has to artfully shoot around, aiding in the film’s slightly abstracted visual sense). It’s a measure of Brando’s inherent acting ferocity that he’s incredibly magnetic, even using this highly detached methodology. In particular, it’s a thrill to watch Brando employ the intricate physicality that had long been one of the most potent markers of his artistry in his aging form. In a way, it’s the last instance of Brando being able to lean on this particular too, and the palpable sense of that fact only infuses the performance, and by extension the film, with just one more disheartening echo of tragic mortality.

Bertolucci directs the whole thing beautifully, holding shots at length and generally finding the sweltering poetry in the damage made manifest in his two lead characters. If there was arguable callousness, even villainy, in the way he practiced his filmmaking at the time, it ultimately results in a piece of art that feels like an admission of humanity’s failings, even a full-on confession of the tragedy of base human need.