Last tango in Paris (1972)

"Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism."


The film begins when Paul (Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meet in a Paris apartment they are both considering renting. Paul, we will learn, is planning a move from his dead wife's hotel. Jeanne is planning marriage with Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), an insipid young director. Within moments after they meet, Paul forces sudden, needful sex upon her. It would be rape were it not that Jeanne does not object or resist, makes her body available almost with detachment.
 Indeed, it is rape in Paul's mind, Paul's sexual release seems real, here and throughout the film, but we are never sure what Jeanne feels during their sex. Although she cries during the famous "butter scene," she is not crying about the sex and indeed doesn't seem to be thinking about it.

Bertolucci said he and Brando conspired to surprise the then-teenager by adding the butter without her knowledge.

“We were having, with Marlon, breakfast on the floor of the flat where I was shooting. There was a baguette, there was butter and we looked at each other and, without saying anything, we knew what we wanted,” Bertolucci said.

Reviewing "Last Tango in Paris" in 1972, I wrote that it was one of the great emotional experiences of our time, adding: "It's a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?"

Paul insists on "no names," no personal histories. Their meetings in the apartment are not dates but occasions for sex, which he defines and she accepts. The pairing of the 20-year old girl and the unkempt 45-year-old man seems unlikely, but Bertolucci enriches it through their dialogue. 

What happens in the apartment between Paul and Jeanne is what the movie is about: How sex fulfills two completely different needs. Paul needs to lose himself to mourning and anger, to force his manhood on this stranger because he failed with his wife. Jeanne responds to a man who, despite his pose of detachment, is focused on her, who desperately needs her (if for reasons she does not understand). Jeanne senses that Paul needs her as she may never be needed again in all of her life. Her despair at the end is not because of lost romance, but because Paul no longer seems to need her.

The history of "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) has and always will be dominated by Pauline Kael. "The movie breakthrough has finally come," she wrote, in what may be  the most famous movie review ever published. "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form." She said the film's premiere was an event comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" was first performed and ushered in modern music. 
As it has turned out, "Last Tango" was not a breakthrough but more of an elegy for the kind of film she championed. In the years since, mass Hollywood entertainments have all but crushed art films, which were much more successful then than now. 

"The physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything we’ve come to expect at the movies that there was something almost like fear in the atmosphere of the party in the lobby that followed the screening [...] Realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen — that’s what Bertolucci and Brando achieve."--Pauline Kael

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