After her mother commits suicide, nineteen year old Lucy Harmon travels to Italy to have her picture painted. However, she has other reasons for wanting to go. She wants to renew her ... See full summary »
While looking for an apartment, Jeanne, a beautiful young Parisienne, encounters Paul, 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 to each other. Their relationship deeply affects their lives, as Paul struggles with his wife's death and Jeanne prepares to marry her fiance, Tom, a film director making a cinema-verite documentary about her. Written by
Erich Schneider <email@example.com>
Love, Life, Loss, and Loneliness in the City of Light
Pauline Kael once famously described Last Tango as the most emotionally gratifying film she had ever seen in her 20 years as a film critic. I have not been a film critic for 20 years (I'm not even 19, the age Maria Schneider was when she played Jeanne). I have not seen more films than there are stars in the sky. But I can agree that this is a film that is groundbreaking in the ways most people don't expect: it so nakedly lays open the life of a broken man in all his flaws and his pain and self-loathing. The genius is that we'll never know if it was Marlon Brando exposing his own vulnerability or the greatest trick Houdini never pulled.
The plot is so simple it borders on preposterous: haunted American widower Paul meets young Parisian Jeanne by chance and together they rent an apartment where they engage in anonymous sex. Those who only know the film by this brief synopsis or its notorious reputation might believe the controversy and fail to look past it. Last Tango is not about sex and it's certainly not about butter. The sex scenes were not merely slapped on to make more money at the box office, for they show simultaneously Paul's release, his grief, his hunger, his rage, his last desperate attempt to reach out to another person. Marlon Brando inhabits this so greatly and personally it's impossible to imagine anyone else in this role with the same feeling of release. From the first frame you see Brando it's so unbearably evident that his face, scarred with age, tells a thousand stories of loneliness. Ironically, it's only through sex with a perfect stranger that he's able to find himself again.
That's essentially what this story is about: loneliness, identity (or loss of it), and, in a strange way, love. More than any director I was reminded of Nicholas Ray, whose own violently poignant film In a Lonely Place bears some resemblance: both films center on a middle-aged man whose troubled existence is briefly calmed when he falls in love and ultimately ends in doom. Like Ray, Bertolucci frames his film meticulously, with shots though mirrors, windows and doorways to convey a sense of loss and emptiness in the large and cheerless apartment, something of a haven from the outside world and the people who inhabit it. Only inside is where Paul and Jeanne can begin to comprehend the lonely places of their hearts.
So much praise has been lavished on Brando it seems unfair to exclude Maria Schneider, whose life was haunted after doing this movie. She's a child aware of her body and her affect on men, but unable to understand why she is in this situation and how she got herself there, and Schneider plays this with such a devastating honesty. But in the end, the film, the audience, and Bertolucci are all more interested in Paul than Jeanne, and for good reasons. Brando gives such ferocity with the simplest of gestures. Usually one can pick the most emotional scene of the film and mark it as the high point, proof of an actor's genius. I suppose that that one scene is when Paul visits the corpse of his deceased wife. First he rages at her, then he breaks down. Though a great scene, every single moment that Brando is on film is a great scene. At once he's insane (I mean that in the best way possible), he's humorous, he's angry, he's sad, he's broken. Paul goes through nearly every single emotion possible, and Brando somehow makes it seem like he was experiencing it himself. Brando told Bertolucci after filming had ended that he put so much of himself into the role that he couldn't imagine doing something as harrowing ever again.
He never did.
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