Last Tango in Paris - Classic Film Pick
Born of one of Bernardo Bertolucci's fantasies about carrying on a purely sexual affair with a complete stranger, Marlon Brando's Paul and Maria Schneider's Jeanne meet regularly in an empty Parisian apartment for unbridled sexual trysts. Paul insists that neither one reveal their names or express any elements of their lives outside their insular world. Theirs is a relationship built purely on carnal intention and experimentation. The stark atmosphere that Bertolucci creates allows for sensual realism to thrive.
Jeanne doesn't know that Paul is coping with his wife's recent suicide. Paul knows nothing of Jeanne's obsessive filmmaker boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who is on the brink of proposing to Jeanne.
Written with assistance from Franco Arcalli and Anges Varda, Bertolucci plays liberally with dualities to address deep-seeded emotions that can only be expressed indirectly. Even the filmmaker’s noir-influenced image system plays with angles.
For the first time, Paul drinks with Tom, his wife's neighbor and former lover, who wears the same robe as Paul. The over-enthusiastic Tom represents an outwardly preoccupied inversion of Paul, who tests Jeanne's temperamental boundaries in similar but altered ways.
After revealing his identity and troubled situation, Paul tells Jeanne, "When something's finished, it begins again." He breaks the carefully guareded code the lovers have adhered to up until now. Paul's sudden turn from cynic to optimist (late in the story) must be punished. His refusal to adhere to his own rules is unacceptable. Not everything is permitted.
For all of the critical and public controversy about “Last Tango” being a pornographic film at the time of its release, the movie is a painstakingly theatrical mood piece that relies heavily on judiciously coded musical cues from Gato Barbieri's repeated motifs.
Significant is Philippe Turlure's bold art direction that draws on the work of the artist Francis Bacon. Two of Bacon's paintings introduce the film during its opening credit sequence. They influence the look of the movie’s saturated color scheme for the interior of the apartment where much of the story takes place. A two-foot high rust colored waterline surrounds the interior walls as if to suggest that the apartment had been submerged in a mixture of blood and water for an extended period during its storied past. The ravages of wars fought have left their mark here.
“Last Tango in Paris” is a masterwork of post-modern existential angst that attempts to reconcile a depth of social existence through its sexually liberated characters.