In the opening sequence of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Ultimo tango a Parigi (1972), the two protagonists — Marlon Brando’s Paul and Maria Schneider’s Jeanne, though their names are rarely spoken aloud — both happen to be walking under Jean-Camille Formigé’s iconic Pont de Bir-Hakeim, a hulking steel structure that dwarfs them utterly. In terms of its use of the city as a place of alienation, among other things, Last Tango in Paris bears much in common with Bertolucci’s earlier masterpiece, Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970), where the director and his regular collaborator, the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, used fascist-era Roman architecture to give the film a sense of paranoia and absurdism. The resulting current of existential horror that runs through The Conformist found its way into Last Tango in Paris, though in a somewhat different form, as the latter film is a paen to grief that details a desperate, ultimately tragic search for intimacy.
But the legacy of Last Tango in Paris isn’t generally associated with its themes of isolation or existential angst, but rather for its controversial use of sexuality. The film’s loose plot follows an unlikely couple: the aging, recently widowed American expat Paul, whose wife has just committed suicide, and the young Jeanne. They have a sudden sexual encounter while they’re both looking at an apartment available for rent. Though he lives in a hotel that his wife’s family owns, Paul takes the apartment and he and Jeanne continue using it to meet up for their affair: the only rule of which is no names and no personal information. As their relationship becomes more intense, delving into the sadomasochistic, these lines become blurred.
While Last Tango in Paris certainly opened the door for more erotic content to follow in its wake, particularly in European arthouse cinema, its reputation for revelling in taboo seems undeserved. None of the more sexually explicit films released in the years after it seemed to have generated nearly as much controversy and vitriol; for example, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Catherine Breillat’s Une vraie jeune fille (1976) were banned, but neither of the directors were personally penalized or ostracized (and indeed Breillat went on to make far more explicit films, while Oshima continued to tackle proscribed sexual themes). It is perhaps Bertolucci’s approach to physicality and intimacy that holds the key to why this film still packs a punch so many years later — a bait and switch that is profoundly uncomfortable while remaining subtle and elegant.
His depiction of bodies, often in tension with one another, is deliberate and almost surgical. Bertolucci mentioned that he was inspired by the grotesque, often gory paintings of Francis Bacon, who reduced the human form to so much meat with canvases often resembling autopsy tables. Bacon’s Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Study for a Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne feature in the opening credits and the director apparently had Brando visit a nearby exhibition of the artist’s work while he was preparing for a role that should be remembered as one of his greatest. The film opens with jarring images of bodies: a woman takes her dentures out in a public bathroom, brushes them, and pops them back in her cavernous mouth; a concierge at the apartment building grabs Jeanne’s hand and won’t let go, threatening to suck her arm through an empty pane in a glass wall. The woman’s words — “The key is missing, strange things happen” — set the tone for the bizarre events to follow, sort of an Alice in Wonderland journey down a sexual rabbit hole full of human tragedy and absurd comedy.
Bertolucci’s refusal to indulge in conventional depictions of intimacy is alienating — and somewhat reminiscent of Godard’s apartment scenes in Le mepris (1963) — and it is Storaro’s framing shots that do much of the heavy lifting. Glass is a major fixture in the film, as bodies are elaborately bisected, reflected, and blurred out. Windows, reflections, colored or patterned glass, and the dizzying use of mirrors could give Fassbinder and his regular DP, Michael Ballhaus, a run for their money. Bertolucci and Storaro’s use of lonely urban spaces is touched upon here, but overshadowed by the indoor sets, namely the empty apartment, which becomes a character in itself. There is simply something about it — despite its seediness, or perhaps because of it — that draws Paul and Jean together (though Brando’s overwhelming, almost claustrophobic charisma makes their first sexual encounter feel plausible, even inevitable).
Within 15 minutes into the film, several minutes after they’ve been alone in the apartment together making inane small talk, he wordlessly picks her up and carries her over to a closed, shuttered window, where they have sex. The scene is graphic while showing barely any flesh — the key visual is Paul’s back, still in his overcoat, with Jeanne’s stocking-clad legs wrapped around him — and though they are both fully clothed, the moment suggests far more raw intimacy than if either one of them had bothered to strip nude. In this scene, and later, they appear lumpy, misshapen, disappearing into shadow, and Bertolucci is obviously intentionally subverting the norms of sex scenes in cinema. The camera’s refusal to show nudity, sexual activity, or even facial expressions is deeply erotic, but also perverse — and there’s something disturbing about Bertolucci’s refusal to turn a moment of private pleasure into a public spectacle. After the act is over, Schneider is far more exposed as she splays out on the floor with her stockings pulled down and no underwear on, and both of them roll and writhe on the ground, feet away from each other, as if in agony. In general, throughout the film, they are not often shown together at the same time (or facing the same direction) in one frame.
In one of the film’s bittersweet concluding scenes, when they’re in a dance hall together watching a competition, he tells her, “the tango is a rite.” Overall, the film is set up around rites and rituals pertaining to romantic intimacy. It weaves together two contrasting couples: the marriage of Paul and his recently dead wife, Rosa, and the impending engagement of Jeanne and her young filmmaker boyfriend (played to perfection by Jean-Pierre Léaud). While the trope of contrasting two parallel couples is a classic device used for both comic and tragic romance throughout literature, Bertolucci twists the separate circles into a permanently looping figure-eight when Paul and Jeanne become involved, and this configuration gives a sense of hopefulness to the film: maybe this time it will be different.
Above all else, Last Tango in Paris is a film about repetitions and recreations and the film’s primary source of tensions comes from the relentless series of questions it poses but never really answers: Will Paul and Jeanne part permanently or come together? Will Paul repeat the same mistakes he made with Rosa with Jeanne? Will Jeanne repeat Paul’s mistakes with her fiancé (when he asks her to marry him)? This is essentially Paul’s film and his violent, often cruel responses to intimacy ultimately serve as the haunting thesis to Lang Tango in Paris. While mired in grief, he attempts to begin his relationship with Jeanne by banishing all conventional approaches to personal intimacy. He tells her he doesn’t have a name and reacts angrily when she tries to tell him hers — or when she tries to tell him anything about herself at all — declaring, “We don’t need names here, we’re going to forget… You and I are going to meet here, without knowing anything that goes on outside.” In a way, this is intimacy in its purest form, raw, physical, and stripped of all masks, as if time itself has stopped to allow them to come together. In Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews, the director stated that in this film, “the present is the absolute present as during a moment of love” (77). But it is also a fantasy. Like the couple in Hiroshima mon amour (1959), who are referred to only as “he” and “she” and spend most of their time together alone in a hotel room rediscovering, or even reinventing themselves, this is a chance for the couple to erase the past and reset the course of history.
This is profoundly contrasted by the performative nature of Paul’s marriage to his wife (or his response to her suicide and the grieving process) and Jeanne’s relationship with her fiancé, Tom. He is making a film, allegedly about her, called Portrait of a Girl, and uses their entire relationship as fodder. He is rarely without his film crew and in an early scene, when they greet each other, he tells her, “If I kiss you, it might be cinema.” He doesn’t bother to ask her permission to include her in the film and she goes along with the proceedings reluctantly, often escaping back to Paul and the apartment. During one of their only direct confrontations, and one of their only scenes together without his film crew, they have a shouting match from opposite sides of a subway platform, where she screams, “I’m tired of being raped” (meaning exploited for artistic purposes). This leads to a public fist fight that turns unexpectedly romantic, if it can be called that, when she surrenders and they collapse to the ground in a kiss.
These scenes with Tom have an eerie parallel to her relationship with Paul, and though she is more assertive with her younger partner, she is little more than a passive object throughout the film, often willingly giving up her own agency. Tom informs of her their engagement by telling her he has a surprise — that they’re getting married — which happens while his cameras are rolling. When she’s fitted for a wedding gown soon after, the crew is also there, but she seems increasingly aware that their relationship is little more than playacting. She says that it’s the dress that makes the bride, implying that it’s just another costume for a performance, and he compares her to actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. When he asks her what she thinks of marriage in this scene, she tells him that she sees it everywhere — in advertisements — as if it is something only to be bought and sold. She admits that love and intimacy, something separate from marriage itself, are exceptions; she says that when the workers retire and take off their overalls to have sex, that’s the only time that they’re allowed to just be men and women again. Bertolucci said, “I think it’s the most political film I’ve ever done, but the characters never speak about politics” (77). In this case, the political subtext is deafeningly loud.
Paul’s relationship with Rosa takes on a similarly performative, political element. When her suicide is first revealed, Paul is back in their hotel and one of the other residents is doing an absurd reenactment of the suicide, which she recounts to Paul. Blood is everywhere (though it looks like magenta paint) and she says it took her so long to clean up, because the police made her go over the supposed death one painstaking detail at a time, despite the fact that no one was present but Rosa, who slashed her wrists and her neck with a straight razor while laying the bathtub. The woman comments to Paul that now, while the two of them are speaking, doctors must be performing an autopsy on his wife, and she makes quite a show of cleaning the razor, which they left behind, to give back to him. Like the first sex scene of the film, much of this occurs just slightly out of frame.
Bertolucci delays in revealing much about Paul’s relationship with Rosa, effectively providing three mysteries: Paul and Rosa, Paul and Jeanne, Jeanne and Tom. None of the relationships make logical sense the way that they perhaps would in a more conventional film and lack a great deal of exposition. Paul himself refuses to solve the mystery of why his wife killed herself; when her mother (Gitt Magrini) shows up to the hotel to prepare the funeral, he tells her, “It is useless to keep on searching.” And similarly to the way he deals with his budding relationship with Jeanne, he rejects all performative aspects of grieving: denying the presence of a priest, screaming “no one believes in God here,” and later laments that during the (private) viewing, Rosa looks like a “caricature of a whore,” because of all the makeup her mother (or the funeral director) has put on her, a “fake Ophelia.” She is surrounded by hydrangeas and he chokes on the sent.
This scene, where he is alone with his wife’s body, is the most harrowing moment of the film. It was already revealed that Rosa had a lover, another hotel patron, who told Paul that, “she had a strange violence about her,” and would occasionally have manic fits. But here, during the scene where he talks directly to her corpse, he discloses that he knows about the box she kept hidden in the closet, which is full of sexual totems that he lists out: keychains and matchbooks from hotels or bars, French ticklers, and even a clergyman’s collar. It is these details that are spoken, but unseen, that act as the hinge of the entire film, revealing the undercurrent of sexual obsession, buried secrets, and romantic deception — all things that Bertolucci implies make up a marriage. Paul admits that he’ll never discover the truth about Rosa and never would have even if she had remained alive. He says, “Our marriage was a foxhole for you and all it took for you to get out was a 35-cent razor and a tub full of water.”
The totemic value of objects extends far beyond Rosa’s clergyman’s collar, but to the barber’s razor, and to the military boots that belonged to Jeanne’s father. In a few moments in the film, Jeanne is alone with her mother in their family apartment in Paris, which her mother is packing up for a final move to their country house on the outskirts of the city. Her mother admits that she can’t bear to be parted from the boots and plans to keep them with her, because she gets “strange shivers when I touch them.” Jeanne’s father’s pistol has a similarly charged meaning and foreshadows the film’s conclusion, which I won’t discuss here. It wouldn’t be a stretch to read a subtext of dominance in the way her father’s uniform is treated, from his well-polished boots to his perfectly preserved colonel’s hat.
Like later, more explicit films would explore — such as Zulawski’s somewhat similar Szamanka (1996) and Haneke’s La pianiste (2001) — these totemic objects are a symbolic expression of the film’s sadomasochistic themes, which include issues of dominance and submission, control, and complicated issues of consent. Bertolucci said that the film came from a dream he had about an anonymous sexual encounter, but he also spoke of the apartment as being like a “desert,” and in this sense the apartment itself and the fantasies Paul plays out on Jeanne’s body become a site of exploration, a journey through the dark heart of his grief.
This comes to a head in the film’s most famous scene, where Jeanne arrives at the apartment, vaguely hysterical because she thinks Paul isn’t there, but finds him on the floor, eating. She admits that it makes her crazy that he’s sure she’ll keep returning to him. He asks her to get some butter and proceeds to flip her on her stomach, pull down her jeans, and have anal sex with her, using the butter as lubricant. He mutters phrases over and over, which he wants her to repeat, about a holy institution, a holy family, a church of good citizens where will is broken by repression. Undoubtedly an act of abasement and humiliation, though lacking overt violence, the scene is often described as a rape, though the first time I saw the film, it never occurred to me to think of it in those terms. I still don’t think this is the case, but see it as another one of their strange, pseudo-sadomasochistic games. Immediately after the scene is over, he lays on the floor and she puts a record on for him.
Even the milquetoast, squeamish Ebert wrote, “It is said in some quarters that the sex in the movie is debasing to the girl, but I don’t think it is. She’s almost a bystander, a witness at the scene of the accident.” And their roles are reversed not much later, when he asks her to trim her fingernails and put her fingers in his ass, while again muttering, this time about how he’s going to get a pig to fuck her; it will vomit on her during the act and then die. The discussion of sexual bondage, of sadomasochism, does come up in oblique terms. When they are in the bathroom together, performing a mock domestic ritual of getting ready for the day (she’s applying makeup and he’s shaving his face with the razor his wife used to kill herself), she asks him if he wants to cut her with the razor. He says that he doesn’t want to do that, because it would be like writing his name on her face, or branding her ass, marking her as if she were a slave, but he says that all he wants is for her to be free. She bursts out that she is not free, recalling earlier scenes where she tells Tom she doesn’t want to be exploited for his film, and is tired of being raped.
Regardless of whether you view the “butter” scene as a nonconsensual act of sexual violation, rape has a spectral presence within the film — namely through her dialogue, where it recurs — and of course it was inevitable that at some point I’d have to mention the current hysteria that surrounds Last Tango in Paris nearly 45 years after its release (which have made the rounds in one form or another a few times throughout the decades): the disgraceful media firestorm that misquoted both Bertolucci and Schneider to assert that the director conspired with Brando and arranged for the actor to anally rape an unsuspecting Schneider on set, in front of cameras and crew. The question is not if Schneider was traumatized by the experience of making the film; at the least, she was undoubtedly troubled by it, as is evidenced by her relationship with the media at the time, her drug use, and her disastrous professional life, which involved quitting (or being fired from) the sets of Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1976), Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), and Jacques Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round (filmed in the late ‘70s but not released until ‘81).
As was the case with Szamanka’s young lead, Iwona Petry, or even Elizabeth Berkeley after the release of Showgirls (1995), perhaps Schneider simply did not have the necessary experience (either personally or professionally) to deal with such a performance or the aftermath which put her in the spotlight and transformed her, overnight, into a sex symbol. But the issue here is not Schneider’s reaction to the film, it is that, decades later, journalists and celebrities (as well a host of online readers) can’t tell the difference between someone feeling emotionally violated and literal onscreen rape — of which there is none in Last Tango in Paris. Following a disturbing wave of fake news that has incited readers to actual violence, I was particularly appalled to have to personally witnessed film journalists reacting with instant vitriol to an article shared by Elle magazine — a publication that spends the majority of its time telling women what kind of shoes they should purchase this season and which makeup products they can’t live without.
Unlike In the Realm of the Senses, Caligula (1979), The Idiots (1998), Romance (1999), or many other noteworthy titles, this is not an arthouse film with unsimulated sex and the current backlash over the tame — though frank and controversial — sexuality in Last Tango in Paris speaks to the fact that perhaps now, more than any other time in recent memory, we need films that intentionally confront and disturb, even disgust or outrage. Films that refuse to traffic in comforting moral absolutes, the kind that so infrequently surface in the real world, and that hopefully challenge the disturbing wave of sexual censorship, an example of which includes a ban on “non-conventional” pornography in the UK, meaning depictions of acts like spanking, face-sitting, and female ejaculation will become illegal.
Brecht wrote, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it,” and in a number of ways, Last Tango in Paris evokes the often difficult, sometimes abusive relationships at the heart of his plays, where couples are often depicted together in intimate spaces. His own “Zuhälterballade” (known as “Pimp’s Ballad,” or most commonly translated as “Tango Ballad”), written with Kurt Weill for Die Dreigroschenoper, recounts the bittersweet memories of love between a prostitute and lazy pimp, when they lived together in a sparse apartment:
“But when he drank too much, I’d get kinda grim
And shout the house down how I stood a clown like him
And then he’d turn around and try to bite my arm
And I would kick him in the teeth, meaning no harm
It was so sweet to be his little spouse
In that foul two by four where we played house”
Brecht coined the term Verfremdungseffekt, generally translated as “alienation effect” or “distancing effect,” which he used relentlessly throughout his work: a technique meant to distance the audience from the characters in a play, a conscious rejection meant to inspire thought and questioning about social order. Directors with varying degrees of socialism in their personal politics from Brecht to Bertolucci — himself a protege of the devout leftist Pasolini — have used sexual exploitation as symbolic of or equivalent to economic exploitation. For directors like Fassbinder, exploring the lives of the marginalized — including women, homosexuals, and immigrants — particularly their sexual freedom, is an affecting way to express the overall injustices of a society.
And in the case of a lot of mainstream cinema, particularly in Hollywood, domestic abuse and sexual violence are complex issues that are largely simplified — or deliberately misconstrued — by privilege. The fact that the Hollywood system, and by extension its audience, is incapable of exploring a story in which a woman seeks out a complicated sexual relationship where issues of consent are paramount can be seen this year in the fact that Paul Verhoeven was unable to find a single American actress to star in Elle (2016) and had to move the film’s production to France.
But Last Tango in Paris is far from being a film about issues of consent or domination; rather its themes are more concerned with issues of intimacy, giving up resistance to strive for an unattainable romantic ideal. Concerned with recursion, repetition, and reinvention, it explores the possibility of making different choices — or continuing to make the same ones — a cycle bound up with violence and sexual exploitation that foreshadowed the boom of explicit erotic films in Europe in the mid-’70s, while also foretelling the death knell of the sexual revolution. If it reminds me of anything from the era, it’s the music of the recently passed Leonard Cohen, a poet of sex and death in equal measures. Abasement and self-sacrifice, as though the search for intimacy is a religious vocation, are enduring theme of Cohen’s songs, where the tragically romantic and the sexually explicit are permanently entwined. And Paul, indeed, becomes a martyr to the cause of emotional and physical intimacy through his death at the end of the film — which is somehow both inevitable and surprising — evoking the orgiastic, apocalyptic themes of a song Cohen wrote just the year before Last Tango in Paris, “Last Year’s Man”: “When we fell together all our flesh was like a veil/ That I had to draw aside to see/ The serpent eat its tail.”