Monday, June 20, 2011

Last Tango in Paris

What a cause célèbre was director Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 atrocity LAST TANGO IN PARIS! During some initial screenings, filmgoers on both sides of the Atlantic had to contend with picketers who hurled epithets at them while they waited in long lines to buy tickets. Local governments around the world confiscated prints. Maria Schneider (Jeanne) and Marlon Brando (Paul) denounced the harrowing experience of shooting the picture, both eventually accusing their director of bullying and deviance. The behind the scenes fracas (pre and post production)is far more interesting than what we witness onscreen for 129 painful minutes. One of my favorites: Brando refused to memorize his lines (can't blame him, and I would've charged the studio thousands per word to utter this nonsense)so he suggested that, during one of the more intimate scenes, his words be written on his co-star's derriere. Even Bertolucci refused such an absurd and lascivious request.

I'm certainly in the minority in my opinion among film lovers on this movie, though some respected critics agree that it is essentially smut wrapped in an art house package. Maybe it is. Not that I'm a connoiseur of the alleged pornographic, but this film fails in that department as well as artistically. I originally saw this film some 20 + years after its controversial debut, so I was well removed from being influenced by the zeitgeist. But by then, this film was hailed as some sort of piece of classic cinema. A notorious film with a famous "butter" scene, billed as supremely erotic. It (and the film) is not.

Paul and Jeanne both seek to rent the same apratment in Paris. They decide to have an affair, the kind where names are not disclosed and emotions are held in check. They proceed to have emotionless, empty sex. I saw no joy, especially not in Jeanne's eyes. Paul is an arrogant prig who spouts some of the most outrageously banal dialogue I've ever heard in a film of this stature. For your reading pleasure, I'll list some of them further on. He seems to be enjoying thet trysts, and then promptly stops showing up at the apartment. Jeanne is distraught; she seeks him out. Or does she?

They eventually meet on the street and Paul is the one who wants to resume the affair. They do indeed do a tango in a bar and begin to really communicate. Jeanne gets a bit spooked and decides to end it. Paul admits he is in love. Somewhere in between, he forces himself upon her, using a stick of butter as a lubricant. It is a scene of great pain, to my eyes. How people can decide that the scene is erotic or sexy is beyond me, and I'm far from prudish. I just think people misread Bertolucci's intentions. The scene is abrupt and edited with no regard for sensuality. It is all about Paul's sense of power. I guess the scene works in that regard.

The closing scenes of the film contain the Relevatory, Meaningful Climax (no pun intended; sorry, couldn't resist). It's a scene you've seen in one form or another many times. Here, it is clumsy and ineffectual. Even if it was poignant, I would not have cared, as I hadn't for the previous 2 hours. LAST TANGO IN PARIS is a deadeningly dull, pretentious pile of swill that some have championed, perpetuating this reputation of brilliance that I did not see. I often say that films are only successful if they meet the filmmaker's goals. It seems to me that Bertolucci was trying to make something sexily high-brow and dissonant, but it's all just twaddle.

And often ridiculous. Let's laundry list some of the dialogue:

1. "I could dance forever! Oh, my hemorrhoid!"

2. "You know in 15 years, you're going to be playing soccer with your tits. What do you think of that?"

3. "What are we doing here?"

"Let's just say we're taking a flying fuck at a rolling donut."

4. "Listen, that's not a subway strap, that's me cock!"

Sure, there's more, but this is a family blog! You might about now blow a whistle and say that I've quoted out of context. I ask you: in what context would any of the above be considered appropriate or indicative of something worthwhile? This film is supposed to be art! I think it all may have had a chance of working if it were silent. Yes, a silent film, even as late as the 1970s. It would've been a bold experiment that, had Bertolucci focused and rallied the talent he has shown on most of his other films (even other controversial pieces like 1979's LUNA, quite underrated),LAST TANGO might have really been something. Instead we have what we have. The scenery (here, I mean architecture) in some scenes is at least nice.

Is it worth even one viewing, just to say that you've seen it? Caveat emptor, invisible audience, caveat emptor. Feel free to respond if you disagree!

Part VIII; The Great Overrated
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