“After a fight with cancer, film director Bernardo Bertolucci died on Monday 26th in Rome, surrounded by family.”
Most famous for his Oscar-laden sweeping historic “The Last Emperor“, acclaim had come earlier in his career with the 1970 “The Conformist” But he achieved an almost permanent notoriety with “Last Tango in Paris” in 1972. Even allowing for the sexual revolution still echoing from the sixties, this film pushed the boundaries of taste to the point that one of the backers (Transamerica Corporation) withdrew from the publicity.
The story is straightforward: While looking for an apartment, Jeanne, a beautiful young Parisienne (Maria Scneider), encounters Paul (Marlon Brando), a mysterious American expatriate mourning his wife’s recent suicide. Instantly drawn to each other, they have a stormy, passionate affair, in which they do not reveal their names. They are driven to this by different demons: Paul struggles with his wife’s recent suicide and Jeanne has a last fling before marrying her besotted fiancé, who is making a documentary about her.
They both arrive to view an empty apartment at the same time and there is sudden chemistry between Schneider’s coquettish innocence and Brando’s brooding intensity. Many audiences at the time were outraged by the explicit sex scenes, especially one involving anal sex. But feminists especially rail against what they see as an egregious brutality of behaviour and an exploitation of the innocent Jeanne on a vein against which the Me Too movement has vigorously campaigned recently.
It’s hard not to sympathise with that view. But I feel this is selling Bertolucci and his empathy for humanity short. In the earlier scenes, Paul is definitely cavalier, even callous in his ‘no names’ treatment of Jeanne as a sex object. But he is clearly tortured by incomprehension of his wife’s suicide and virtually punishing himself, as in the anal sex scene, which she performs on him. For her part, Jeanne is a willing partner, experiencing an excitement her ardent but sweetly innocent fiance seems unable to provide.
The brilliance of the movie is not the shocking sex but how the dynamic of dominance shifts in Jeanne’s favour. Their exciting, nameless intimacies revive Paol from his slough of despair and he starts to court Jeanne, as if he wants a serious relationship. This shatters Jeane’s fascination as he takes her places outside the apartment that has been their sole connection, including a dance hall full of older people intently dancing the tango.
Appalled by an age mismatch with this and with Paul, Jeanne flees home, only to be pursued by Paul—roles now reversed— right into her parents’ apartment, where the terrified Jeanne shoots him with her father’s army revolver. The final scene has Paul standing on he balcony, mortally wounded, staring out in incomprehension at a beautiful view over the roofs of Paris and Jeanne repeating sotto voce: “I don’t know who he is. He just broke in…”
It is a heart-rending masterpiece of how a brutally wounded soul in the midst of the beauty of Paris can find the innocence he had lost—and find it more brutal than his original anguish. To focus on the sex scenes (not, in my opinion, rape scenes), however distasteful they may be, and not see them as a necessary element in this arc of tragedy is to miss the insight into humanity that Bertolucci achieved.