Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Ultimo tango a Parigi (1972)

LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Ultimo tango a Parigi)

(director/writer: Bernardo Bertolucci; screenwriter: Franco Arcalli; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editors: Franco Arcalli/Roberto Perpignan; music: Gato Barbieri; cast: Marlon Brando (Paul), Maria Schneider (Jeanne), Jean-Pierre Leaud (Tom), Maria Michi (Rosa’s Mother), Veronica Lazar (Rosa), Catherine Allégret (Catherine), Marie-Hélène Breillat (Monique), Catherine Breillat (Mouchette), Darling Légitimus (Concierge), Massimo Girotti (Marcel); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alberto Grimaldi; MGM; 1972-Italy/France-in English and French with English subtitles)

“One of Brando’s great acting performances.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bernardo Bertolucci’s (“The Conformist”) impersonal romance story about doomed lovers became a controversial movie because of the frankness of its sex scenes. It was a comeback film for Marlon Brando, who made a number of bad films in the 1960s. The 45-year-old Brando gives the film its most testy moment when telling his 20-year-old co-star Maria Schneider to “get the butter,” as he prepares to enter her from behind. Perhaps the most crucial line of dialogue is when Brando utters in despair “Even if a husband spends two hundred fuckin’ years, he’s never going to comprehend his wife’s true nature.” But this art-house movie for adults did not usher in an era of revolutionary filmmaking as film critic Pauline Kael believed it would. She thought, at the time, it would become a landmark in movie history comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” was first performed as an example of modern music. Though “Last Tango” eventually helped change the way sex was more freely portrayed on the screen, only a few films since dared be as graphic.

Marlon Brando is first seen yelling up in agony in the Paris street (like in “A Streetcar Named Deire”), while Maria Schneider is on the same street hunting for an apartment. Soon the two accidently meet in a vacant apartment for rent and Brando convinces her they should have anonymous sex–no names or anything about their personal lives revealed. They begin a spontaneous relationship where they meet in the apartment only for sex and childish games. Away from the flat, we learn Maria is engaged to a young filmmaker named Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud). He is shooting a TV cinema vérité documentary about her life, which both annoys and pleases the girl who often pouts. During the shoot, he asks her to marry him next week and she agrees. She lives with her widowed bourgeois mother, as her army colonel father died in 1958 in Algeria. We learn that Brando’s French wife Rosa just fatally slit her wrists in the bathtub and left no suicide note. They owned a fleabag hotel inhabited by drug users and prostitutes, where Rosa had a dullish lover living in the hotel named Marcel that she told Brando about. Brando is an American expatriate with a checkered past, who at times was a boxer, actor, bongo player, journalist and traveler to Tahiti. He married the free-spirited Rosa five years ago, in a marriage that was open but filled with doubts. In one touching scene that many critics felt was autobiographical, Brando talks to his wife’s corpse saying personal things that heatedly come into his head.

The film is much better at getting to what Brando is doing in this relationship than what Maria is. Brando says he’s “taking a flying flick at a rolling doughnut.” We never learn what Maria wants from this relationship, as Bertolucci keeps her as cipher–seemingly more interested in observing her in the nude than in understanding how she could enter this affair while in love with someone else.

The melodrama ends in tragedy when Brando breaks the mysterious spell of his anonymity and loses his childish charm, as he gets drunk like a maudlin old man after taking Maria to a tango dance hall inhabited by a middle-aged crowd. Brando has dissected marriage as something used to prevent loneliness and to shield one from the cold world, as he despairingly warns Maria “You won’t be free of being alone until death.” Marriage is further likened to a death wish while love is merely a childish fantasy that soon grows old.

This is one of Brando’s great acting performances, it might even be his best. Much of his 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.