Monday, December 20, 2010

"Last Tango in Paris" (1972)

"You remembered the butter, right, honey?"
Like most great art, there are many ways to look at Last Tango in Paris. On one level we can get caught up in the eroticism. It's a remarkably sexual film with multiple sex scenes and plenty of nudity. Unlike pornography, though, the film does not look to separate the act of sex from the emotions of the characters or the viewer -- the emotions are raw, intense and complicated.

On another level, we can look at it as a fascinating study of life and death. The characters struggle with grief, self-awareness, and the process of acceptance.

We could also look at it as a pretentious arthouse film with a big name actor -- Marlon Brando -- a lot of frustrating scenes that are hard to interpret, and an ending that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

For me, Last Tango plays like the dance from whence it gets its name. It is intimate and frustrating, erotic and confounding, seductive and demanding. I think that's what director Bernardo Bertolucci intended.

The story is about an American in Paris named Paul (Marlon Brando), whose wife recently committed suicide. Unable to understand not just her reasons for this, but his place in her life and feelings, he attempts to move out of the hotel in which they lived and she operated. He finds an apartment, but discovers another person has also found it at the same time.

Her name is Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a 20-year old Parisian girl who is still learning how to grow up. She has a lame boyfriend named Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who directs incomprehensible films about her, but wants to marry her. She, like Paul, seems to be looking for a way out of her life, albeit for different reasons.

In their initial meeting, Paul establishes the dynamic. He is passive-aggressive, mysterious, dangerous. As she demands he decide what he wants to do about the apartment, he takes it as an invitation to have sex. It seems like rape, except Jeanne welcomes his rapture. They seem to offer each other a respite from their extremely different lives.

Paul takes the apartment and the two meet often for sexual trysts. They have rules -- no names, no histories, nothing serious -- yet they flirt with crossing those boundaries often. Their relationship is sado-masochistic, yet so wonderfully intimate in a way I've never seen on film. In one scene, they face each other in bed, sharing beautiful pillow talk, yet later Paul asks her to bring a stick of butter, which he uses as lubricant for anal sex. They seem to fall in love over the course of the film, but it's hard to say exactly what the word might mean to each of them. It's not like a Hollywood film, where "love" has the universal meaning of "happily ever after" and "wedding bells."

In between their meetings, we get glimpses into each lovers' life. Jeanne's is simplistic, dominated by her mother and boyfriend. It's easy to see why she embraces Paul so ravenously -- he never objectifies her, even as he sodomizes her. He allows her to be a woman both sexually and emotionally, all the while fucking with her emotions so horribly that it seems to make no sense why she wants to go back to him.

Paul's life, on the other hand, is completely devastated by grief. His mother-in-law moves in to the hotel to tend to her daughter's funeral, and Paul takes out his rage toward his dead wife on her. The movie's most profound moment comes in another bedroom, as Paul sits beside the body of his wife and talks to her, curses at her, and cries over her. "I may be able to understand the secrets of the universe," he growls, "but I'll never understand the truth about you." This moment could just as well be describing a man's relationship with all women, not just Paul's personal reflections about his marriage. It certainly offers insight into his relationship with Jeanne, who seems to share his feelings as they pertain to understanding him.

Another powerful moment in Paul's life occurs when one night at the hotel he is greeted late in the evening by a prostitute looking for a room to service a john. As he hems-and-haws over letting her and the client in, the client takes off running, having a change of heart about fucking the ugly whore. The prostitute forces Paul to chase down the man, and he does so. When he catches the man, Paul beats him up, thrashes him, but ultimately lets him leave. Suddenly, it becomes clear that he is letting go of himself in this moment; only a few moments earlier, as the prostitute argued with him, she spoke of his wife -- the former hotel owner -- in terms that lead us to believe she, too, at one time was a prostitute. If she was, suddenly Paul's entire experience becomes clear. He hates himself for loving a whore, hates viewing women as whores, and hates that he has treated Jeanne as one, too.

The last act of the film shows the change in Paul as he goes from being the mysterious, damaged lover to being the desperate man looking to be loved. Suddenly, he's trying to sweep her off her feet, confessing his life to her and violating every rule that made their erotic rendevouzs so remarkable. It's a glorious transformation in terms of acting, and Brando wrings every gut churning moment out of it in a way that makes us both hate and sympathize deeply for him. He is strong, yet horribly pathetic. Jeanne sees it, too, and even as she wants him to love her, she already has a simpering boyfriend -- she runs from him.

Desperation, though, is cruel, and the end of the film is unkind. I'm not sure how I feel about Jeanne killing Paul in the end. Not sure how necessary it was to the plot, except to say that love is dangerous territory, and what it means to each of us individually does not always match. For me, the movie could not have ended in any other way. Paul had to die, if only to end the suffering he had to endure throughout the film.

Last Tango in Paris is a great piece of cinematic art. It is challenging, riveting and beautiful, and like great art, despite the interpretation you decide upon, definitely worthy of your time.

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