A homage to LAST TANGO IN PARIS
Even though Last Tango in Paris is mostly famous for its highly charged sexual scenes accompanied by blasphemy which therefore caused a scandal at the time of its release and must still have the pope cursing the day it hit the screens, what got overlooked is that Last Tango in Paris is a poetic and narrative masterpiece.
At the core of the film lies a doomed love affair, but Bertolucci also comments on the dogmatic and damaging influence of the family and, drawing the circle even wider, the Catholic church. The two characters, Jeanne and Paul, are like two savages, who try to create their own world but ultimately break when confronted with their past lives and the outside world.
Last Tango in Paris dares to delve into the ugly depths of human relationships and not only that, it digs up the monsters lurking in its murky waters and gives them human faces. Starting with evocative titles featuring paintings by Francis Bacon and trembling music by Gato Barbieri, we know we are in for a ride when the film opens with a shot of a man in a brown coat standing beneath a railway bridge trying to escape the noise of the overrunning train by pressing his hands to his ears. There he is forlorn with disheveled hair and agony in his eyes: Marlon Brando, the character of Paul, the uprooted American in Paris. Maria Schrader plays Jeanne, the Parisian ingénue, and as she passes him in a crème coat with fur trimmings and a hat with plastic flowers she looks like a character from a varieté show at the Pigalle.
And in comes the third character of the film, the obscure object of desire: an apartment to let. When Jeanne asks the old Caribbean concierge for the key, the woman doesn’t let go of the girl’s hand and, like the witch in the fairytale, she seems to jinx the girl with her hysterical laughter, a foreboding of that whatever is going to happen in this apartment will be no ordinary affair.
And we are also entering Vittorio Storaro’s (the cinematographer) world of dirty whites and browns, which in times of intimacy are given a copper glow, but where the light can never quite fight off the shadows and where darkness becomes a place for painful comfort and shared loneliness.
As Jeanne ascends in the elevator like a modern-day Alice travelling to wonderland, the camera rests on a round lamp shining like the moon. When she enters the apartment the American is already there, slouched in a corner, waiting for nothing, but not surprised to see her there. They talk about the apartment, if he’s made up his mind about taking it, he has, she is not sure, he tells her to decide quickly, all marvellous sub-text for what follows next: they fuck. And it is an act of heavy labour, void of any intimacy.
Desperate and confused Jeanne runs to meet her boyfriend, an eager film student who is documenting their lives as a couple in love, and thus transforms any real feelings into acting, taking away the realness she craves.
Cut to a woman cleaning a blood-stained bathroom in a boarding house: the place the American owned together with his wife who committed suicide. Paul’s troubles to communicate are not only language-based, even in his own house, he is a man out of place. His feeling of being trapped inside a human zoo is translated into aggressive action and words.
Jeanne and Paul meet again at the apartment. She wants to know his name. He reacts violently, insisting that there should be no names. He imposes a world without past and memories on her: We are strangers and shall remain strangers. The less you know me the less you can hurt me. And we know that this man is a prisoner of his past and the only way to escape it is by pretending it isn’t there. The apartment thus becomes a sanctuary, a place outside life and reality, a stage where past events can be re-enacted and given a different outcome and the purest form of communication can be found.
But his past cannot simply erased and weaves itself into the present as the mother of his dead wife waits for Paul at the boarding house, eagerly preparing the funeral, holding on to what she can grasp: the cards to be sent out, the flowers, the ceremony. Her grief meets with Paul’s aggression as she tries to overcome the horror of what has happened by throwing herself into organising the aftermath, while utterly unable to understand why her daughter has killed herself. Or maybe she does and tries to escape her guilt by hanging on to the mundane tasks.
Jeanne’s boyfriend, still obsessed with finding out who Jeanne is, takes her back to her childhood house in the countryside, occupied by her racist nanny and the memories of her dead father, a colonel in the French army.
Jeanne carries her memories over to the apartment, to the man who does not want to know them, and who recognises them as what they are: romanticised images of childhood, her youthful naiveté constantly clashing with his middle-aged cynicism. Eventually Paul opens up and his childhood memories are of a different nature. Both his parents drunks, humiliating him, the boy. But when Jeanne taunts him about having let go of his guard he replies that everything he’s told her might be lies. Later on he cries by himself and we know they are not.
Paul’s language throughout the film is violent and obscene, the armour on which he hopes all the pain ever inflicted on him and which is yet to come, will bounce off. But when alone with his wife, covered in flowers and makeup for the dead, he breaks down, releasing his hurt by cursing her and confessing that he’d loved her and that she short-changed him until the very end.
All this is a charged build-up for the core scene of the movie: Paul butters up Jeanne’s rear and rapes her, or does he? But it wasn’t this what caused the controversy: while he is at it, he makes her repeat after him, in a scene entitled “Holy Family”: “I’m going to the family. That holy institution, meant to breed virtue in savages. Holy family. Church of good citizens. The children are tortured until they tell their first lie. Where the will is broken by repression. Where freedom is assassinated by egotism. Family… you… you…you fucking family! Oh God… Jesus”, and he comes.
Here, Bertolucci makes a connection between the family as the nuclear unit to the Holy Family and simultaneously comments on the corrupt nature and righteousness of the Catholic church, stating that both families, your own and the supposedly holy one, are a means of oppressing the independent spirit, fucking you in the ass, literally.
Yet the more Paul frees himself of his demons and becomes a believer again, the more Jeanne spirals into a dark world of her own. When he finds her under the rail-way bridge, he is a changed man. A man with music in his walk, full of optimism and hope. But Jeanne has passed the point of no return and tells him it’s over. They enter a dance hall where middle-aged couples engage in a semiprofessional tango competition. For Jeanne their fairytale has become stale reality, reeking of disillusionment. Paul is finally himself, a love-struck teenager, if not for the first time then surely for the last. He tells her he loves her, but she only sees the maître d’hôtel in him. As if now, that his guts are displayed on the table Jeanne notices his tie is the wrong colour.
Once more the possibility of their love appears as they playfully dance amongst the couples their version of the tango. Being kicked off the dance floor they retreat into a dark corner and in an act of pity and humiliation Jeanne masturbates Paul, and maybe, unconsciously, pays him back. Then she desperately breaks away from him. Paul runs after her in the streets and forces his entry into her mother’s flat. Jeanne takes her father’s revolver from the drawer. He wants to know her name: She says, Jeanne, and shots him. Paul staggers onto the balcony and, in a final gesture of absurdity, or simply to leave his mark behind, he takes out his chewing gum and sticks it beneath the iron-cast railing. Jeanne mutters,: “I don’t know who he is. He followed me in the streets. He tried to rape me. He is a lunatic. I don’t know what he is called. I don’t know his name. I don’t know who he is.” And it’s true: the one thing he has never told her was his name.