On the cover of the paperback edition of my novel A Perfectly Natural Act there is the blurb: "As compelling as Last Tango in Paris!" (This is not a shameless plug since my novel is long out of print.) When your work is touted as being "like" some earlier, successful work, you can be sure what is really being said is your work is not all that good and needs some hype to move it off the shelves.
So it took me 33 years to finally get around to watching "Last Tango..." and that is all to the good because if I had watched it when I was young, the barbarous sexuality would have sorely distracted me. Well, Maria Schneider (Jeanne) would have. She is very sexy and is shown complete ("she comes complete"!) in a number of scenes. Her acting ability has been challenged by some, but I thought she did a nice job in a difficult role.
Problem was she was paired opposite Marlon Brando (Paul) who was busy giving one of his greatest performances. Brando said some time afterwards that he never wanted to do anything like this again. Presumably he was referring to the depressing nature of human sexuality portrayed in the film. This is ironic since most of the raunchy and degrading lines are spoken by Brando who improvised them himself! He later commented that some of the lines written by director Bernado Bertolucci were not to his liking. What I think happened is Bertolucci wanted to live out as a director one of his youthful fantasies (raw, anonymous sex with a young beauty) and Brando, with his ultra sophistication about such matters, played his part with a brutal satirical edge, perhaps making fun of Bertolucci's fantasy, turning it into an unpleasant, hard reality.
But the "reality" was a bit over the top for everybody. The infamous "Get the butter" scene, which was improvised by Brando and Bertolucci (to Schneider's dismay), made it clear that Paul considered Jeanne an animal that you used and nothing more. The dead rat scene and all the pig talk, ditto. Brando was also projecting his own feelings. He was 48-years-old when the film was released and was getting a paunch and losing his muscle tone. All the sex scenes but one are filmed with Brando clothed so as not to make the decline of his physical prowess obvious. He projected his own feelings about the decline of his body by referring derisively to his hemorrhoids, his prostate, and his paunch.
What Brando does so very well here is become that animalistic, but thinking brute who has his way with women because they cannot resist his alpha male prowess regardless of the gray in his hair. The early scene in the apartment when the nameless Brando just takes the nameless Schneider without so much as a spoken word or a caress might make women say "if only more men could be so commanding," and men say "I wish I had that kind of confidence." I am reminded Brando's Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) except that here little is left to the imagination. The Brando that was Kowalski at twenty-seven (with an I.Q. upgrade) could easily be the Brando that was Paul at forty-eight.
Almost all the discussion about this movie is about Brando, and that is certainly understandable since, despite all the ugliness of the film, it featured one of Brando's greatest performances. However, the movie was and is Bertolucci's. He wrote it and directed it. His original cut runs something like four hours. The version here rated NC-17 runs 136 minutes. The problem is that just about everything in the movie that does not included Brando is a bit of an anticlimax or an irrelevancy. Jean-Pierre Leaud (Tom) of Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows (1959) fame plays a film maker and Jeanne's intended. He was possibly chosen for the film because his boyish style and demeanor would contrast so sharply with Brando's commanding style. Two lovers had Jeanne: one was easy and boring, the other was scary and exciting. But I think Bertolucci was also having some fun with the French cinema and especially with Francois Truffaut. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that a year later Truffaut would release Day for Night (1973) (La Nuit americaine) in which Truffaut plays a director directing Leaud in a kind of pleasing but lightweight film contrasting sharply with the dark psychosis of Last Tango.
I don't think I could sit through the four hour version but it might be a good learning experience for young film makers. At any rate, perhaps some of the seeming illogic of the film might become reasonable, including the all too easy and not entirely explicable ending. I rate this film very highly because it was innovative (rather shocking for its time), with a fine jazz score, but mostly because of Brando's stellar performance and the sensual beauty of a 20-year-old Maria Schneider. By the way, the film is in French and English with subtitles. Brando's French is amusing, and whoever dubbed Schneider's English has a cute and witty voice.
Another excellent (and very beautiful) film by Bertolucci is The Conformist (1970) starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Dominque Sanda. Interestingly enough Sanda was originally picked for Last Tango, as was Trintignant, and she would have given some needed depth to Jeanne's character, but she declined I guess because of all the nudity. Ironically a few years later Schneider was tabbed to play the lead in Luis Brunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) but dropped out during the filming reportedly because of a nude scene! Maybe she was afraid of becoming typecast.
I guess the bottom line on Last Tango is that it is an uncomfortable film illuminated by a veracious Parisian feel and a truly stunning performance by one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen.