Revisiting Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial “Last Tango In Paris”

The 1972 reputation of the movie featuring Marlon Brando and Maria Scheneider still lives up to it’s enduring controversy

Revisiting Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial “Last Tango In Paris”

The 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci film “Last Tango in Paris” turns 51 and we revisit some of the reasons that makes this one of the most iconic and controversial films of all time.

Paul (Marlon Brando) is a lonely American businessman struggling to make sense of things after the death of his wife. Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is an ebullient young woman drifting haphazardly through life, caught up in a romance with an ambitious young filmmaker whom she doesn’t know if she loves. When they meet in a deserted Paris apartment its lust at first sight, but the affair which begins there refuses to submit to the restraints they try to place on it. Wary of emotional involvement, Paul shuns conversation and refuses to exchange names. Their actions are self-consciously sordid and self-serving, but nevertheless, something develops between them which threatens to overwhelm them both. Born of one of Bernardo Bertolucci’s fantasies about carrying on a purely sexual affair with a complete stranger, “Last Tango in Paris” is winningly eccentric, dark but also oddly whimsical in its mood, music, camerawork, and personalities. The film is both erotic and intensely realistic in its exploration of sexual values and morality. The famous butter scene which involves Schneider face down on the apartment floor while Brando applies butter to her rear and performing anal sex. “That scene wasn’t in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea,” Schnedier told the UK Daily Mail in a revealing interview in 2007. “They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry. I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that.” “Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.” Many believed that the sex scenes between Brando and Schneider were for real, but she insists: “Not at all. There was no attraction between us. For me, he was more like a father figure and I a daughter. “Marlon said to me: ‘You look just like Cheyenne (his daughter, who subsequently committed suicide in 1995) with your baby face.’” Bertolucci wrote the screenplay in collaboration with his editor, Franco Arcalli, but in probing the American psyche he relied on Brando’s input. Many directors were driven to distraction by Brando’s notorious methods, his hesitant, questioning approach to his material. But in this case, it was exactly what the director wanted. Much of Brando’s role is improvised and his emotional responses touch some deep nerves in him, where his Method acting ability is most noticeable. There’s a rich crossing of reality with fiction as Brando talks about his upbringing as a farm boy, living with an abusive drunk father and a drunk mother who at least was sensitive and taught him to love nature. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro provides a variety of brown and green muted colors to set the physically oppressive and masochistic atmosphere that prevails. Francis Bacon paintings were used in the opening credits and set the excessive death-like and flesh-like tone for the film. While Bertolucci wisely gives the greatest actor of our time enough room to bring out his instinctual and polished acting skills, in a role that could have been lost in its funkiness and narcissism if it weren’t for Brando’s ability to get us to share his pain. It’s strange to look back on 1972 and see Marlon Brando as he was then, already aging badly yet still possessed of the vitality and brooding edginess which made him one of Hollywood’s all-time greats. “Last Tango In Paris” is perhaps his last truly great film, and bringing him together as it does with Bertolucci, it’s something which no lover of film can afford to miss.

By Ken Warren, 2017-18

Origin: France | Italy
Released: 1972
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi

Watch the original “Last Tango In Paris” 1972 trailer

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