(25/07/07) – Last Tango in Paris is the centrepiece of the BFI Southbank’s current Marlon Brando season. In October it will be thirty-five years since the film had its historic showing at the New York Film festival. Here are ten reasons why it’s still well worth catching it on the big screen:
1. Seeing the film in a cinema allows the viewer to experience something a bit closer to what the early audiences felt at seeing what would become one of the most controversial films of all time. Even now, the opening credits build a rattling sense of anticipation, confirmed by the opening shot, of Paul (Marlon Brando), his fingers in his ears as a train thunders overhead, screaming out a profanity in rage and grief.
2. The music is less off-putting and discordant in the cinema. On DVD, Gato Barbieri’s sax-led jazz fusion keeps turning up like a drunk at an AA meeting. But actually, the music works contrapuntally to the tragic events onscreen, similar to the way in which Bernard Herrmann’s romantic score for Taxi Driver would complement the violent and intense goings-on in that film a few years later. Watch the moment near the start when Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is trying to obtain a key to the apartment she wishes to view. Unbeknownst to her, but suspected by us, Paul already has the key. But the receptionist searches for the spare, and when she finds it, she calls the retreating Jeanne back to the counter to take it. As Jeanne turns to approach the counter and wait for the key to be delivered, the music swells, and its appropriateness at that moment is a marvel.
3. The cinema enables the viewer to absorb more fully the way in which the film proceeds. Like all of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s best work, the style in Last Tango is one of total intuition.
4. The big screen is kinder to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s flesh colours, the smudged browns, the golds, the red, the blood on the glass in the bathroom where Paul’s wife has committed suicide. The colour scheme was inspired by an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s works which was at the Grand Palais around the time the film as being prepared. Two of his paintings appear in the opening credits. And in this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, in the first room there is a terrific painting by Marcus Harvey of a woman on a toilet, seen through pebbled glass, which can’t help but be redolent of the imagery we have here.
5. Absorption in the film gives the viewer the opportunity to work hard. Indeed, you have to work hard if you are going to enjoy it. If you don’t work hard, the film won’t make sense. But that’s not meant to be prohibitive or discouraging.
6. One of the hardest things about the film is fathoming to what degree it’s Brando onscreen and to what degree it’s Paul. When one realises that it doesn’t much matter, one can enjoy the achievement all the more. Brando’s performance here has been hailed for thirty-five years, and it’s good to be reminded of the amount of detail he puts into his performance as Paul. When Jeanne tells him she has a boyfriend, his jealously is palpable, and swiftly covered. When he overpowers her in the famous butter scene, his enactment of intercourse is erotic in its intimacy; imagine any of today’s big male stars (remember, Brando was the Oscar holder, for The Godfather) doing that. Best of all, the close-ups of his most beautiful face as he delivers his monologues are to be savoured. The two best ones are his reminiscences of growing up on a farm and his bitter and tragic speech to his dead wife’s body.
7. In terms of detail, the sex, the cause of all that controversy, is, by today’s standards, quite mild. But the dialogue still shocks, and goes beyond what we hear in film these days. Movies like GoodFellasand Training Day think they talk tough, but the characters in Last Tango really expose their inner selves, not always meaning to do so, and the actors are equal to it; even though the part of Jeanne is somewhat underwritten compared to that of Paul, we mustn’t take away from Maria Schneider’s bravery at accompanying Brando and Bertolucci through this material.
8. David Thomson has said that Paris has rarely appeared more abstract onscreen than it does in Last Tango. That’s true, but the film is still set very recognisably in the real city, rather than in an invented or fantastical realm. It is weird how the scene with the whore and her client at the door of the hotel is meant to be four in the morning, but the very next scene, where Paul pursues the client along the street, is seemingly in broad daylight. But it doesn’t not work!
9. That a director who was only just over thirty years of age could have had such insight to tell a story about a middle-aged man without affectation or wishful thinking shows maturity of an uncanny order. And not just cinematic maturity – though Last Tango remains moving for its debt to the Nouvelle Vague (with Godard one could say represented by Jean-Pierre Laud’s slightly overcooked performance). Seeing Last Tango in 2007, we are reminded of why Bertolucci got his reputation, and what we would gain if he were to return with a new film of such feeling.
10. The reference to L’Atalante drew sniggers in the audience I saw the film with – either sniggers of superiority or affectionate chuckles at the reference, and at this moment very typical of a Nouvelle Vague film (which this, in many ways, is). But the reference is very moving, for its aptness (L’Atalante also concerns young lovers and the older, worldly wise man who comes between them), for its use in the scene, and for the editing of it. Bertolucci’s timing is as instinctive as his camera placement.
11. It follows on from the opportunity to work hard that Bertolucci has omitted certain pieces of information, or certain shots, which we would typically expect, and so we have to join the dots to create the whole. The bit where he decides to follow her into her parents’ apartment near the end is a case in point. Paul watches Jeanne go into the building and the camera pans up to show the lights on in the high-up windows. As we pan down again we see that Paul is running across the street to follow her inside. We didn’t see him at the moment at which he made the decision; instead, Bertolucci has edited within the mise en scene, and we feel the moment more strongly for not having had it given to us.
Okay, so that’s eleven reasons. But this is a review of Last Tango, after all. How can anyone stop at ten?
The Marlon Brando season at the NFT in London goes on until 31 July 2007.