Friday, October 7, 2011


A friend of mine once told me that Last Tango In Paris was about nothing. After I saw the film for myself, I wondered if he saw the same film that I did, or perhaps he had been blinded by the sexual content. I felt Last Tango was a powerful, emotional, and profound statement about the relationship between men and women. The film deals with the themes of love and sex, fear and desire, anger and betrayal, and how we deal with both the ecstacy of love and the intense pain when it all comes down. Anyone, who had ever been in love and experienced the pain of a failed relationship can relate to this film. That being said, Last Tango is not always a pleasurable experience to watch.

The credit sequence shows us two paintings - one of man, and one of a woman, both in a room by themselves, by the painter Francis Bacon who was known for his anguished depictions of the human form. The soundtrack has the expressive voice of Gato Barbieri's saxophone.

The opening shot is a close-up of Marlon Brando (Paul) screaming the words "Fucking God!" as a train roars past on the bridge above. The young, beautiful Jeanne (Maria Schneider) notices the distressed middle-aged man as they both cross the river where they come across a sign for an open apartment. They both look at it simultaneously, and after a game of cat and mouse, they have a spontaneous sexual experience that was shocking when the film came out in 1972. They now embark on an affair where they meet at the apartment to have sex, but Paul wants no names and no past history. Pure sex and human connection without the social conventions of the outside world. For Jeanne, it is also an escape from her privileged background and her filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is constantly putting her on a pedestal and has the camera rolling at all times. He is trying to understand her and know her, but her secret meetings with Paul are all for herself.

As the film evolves we see that Paul is destroyed, because his wife, Rosa, has committed suicide. He knows she had a lover, and he has to deal with her mother, who insists on a religious funeral, even though Paul has lost all faith. He is not only hurt, but he is angry at Rosa as well. In a powerful and shocking scene he berates her in tears as she lies in her coffin surrounded by flowers.

Last Tango In Paris was directed by the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, and the film was controversial when it came out because of the graphic sexual scenes between Brando, who was 48 at the time, and Schneider, who was only 19. Bertolucci's films push the envelope and often deal with sexual taboos. There are powerful, disturbing scenes in the film and both actors later said they felt manipulated and exploited by Bertolucci.

Bertolucci is a master filmmaker and his visual style in Last Tango is astounding as it is shot by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. There is a great use of warm colors especially yellows and reds and a magnificent play of light and shadow. There is a Rembrandt quality to the images in Last Tango.

In the end, Paul and Jeanne can't avoid or escape the conventions of daily life. The breakdown of the walls they have constructed leads to tragedy. Last Tango in Paris is tough and full of turmoil, but it is also a beautiful and powerful work of cinema.

Bertolucci has made many interesting films, but one of his strongest and the one that set the tone for his distinct visual style was the The Conformist which was made two years before Last Tango in 1970. The film is based on the novel by Alberto Moravia and stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Dominique Sanda. The film is a case study of fascism, and centers around a man who is a bureaucrat, and who has been dehumanized by a dysfunctional middle class family and a childhood sexual trauma. He accepts his assignment to assassinate his former professor and mentor who is now living in exile. Bertolucci makes use of the 1930s art, architecture, and decor with an amazing use of light and shadow that create striking visual patterns. Like in all of his films, Bertolucci layers politics and psychology into the story and lives of his characters.

1900 came out in 1976, and was an international epic that starred Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli, Donald Sutherland, Sterling Hayden, and Burt Lancaster. The original director's cut by Bertolucci was 311 minutes long, but was shortened to 180 minutes for theatrical release. At the film's center are Alfredo (DeNiro) and Olmo (Depardieu), friends who were born on the same day at the turn of the twentieth century. They are from opposite ends of the social spectrum as Alfredo is the son of the landowner played by Lancaster, and Olmo is the illegitimate son of the foreman of the peasants played by Hayden. The film is a classic confrontation between capitalism and socialism. Donald Sutherland's character embodies the rise of fascism and is decadent and sadistic. The film is full of interesting scenes and again contains graphic depictions of sex and violence and has that distinct beautiful visual style that Bertolucci is known for.

The Last Emperor (1987) is a biopic about Puyi, the last Emporer of China. The film stars John Lone, Joan Chen, and Peter O'Toole and won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Bertolucci. It was the first feature where the Chinese government granted filming in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Puyi's life is depicted from his ascent to the throne as a child to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Chinese Communist authorities. As usual the film has a beautiful visual style using rich colors in the scenes of the young Puyi in the Forbidden City contrasted with the muted grays of the structures and clothing of the Maoist revolution. 

Other noteworthy films by Bertolucci are Before The Revolution (1964), The Spider's Stratagem (1970), Luna (1979), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1993), Stealing Beauty (1996), Besieged (1998), and The Dreamers (2003).

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