My last tango with ‘Last Tango in Paris’

So last night was the third time in my life I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘Last Tango in Paris’ and I think I can safely say that’s me done with the film. Tell the band to leave and take off your dancing shoes because I’m outta here.

Now I’m a big fan of 1970’s, European art-house erotica. I love the playfully transgressiveness nature of it, the visual flare and the outrageous explorations of how sexuality can exalt or destroy. Plus a lot of them can also be hilarious fun. So why have I never been a fan of ‘Last Tango in Paris’, apart from the fact it is about as far from erotic (and it is most certainly not “fun”) as you can get and more a descent into grief via the churning flesh of Francis Bacon? Still, potentially meaty stuff.

I first saw it as a teenager, for the obvious reasons, and I was thoroughly bored. I re-visited it in my early thirties to find out why some people hold it up as a masterpiece only to, once again, be left wondering what I was missing. Now I’m the same age as the Brando character, and more familiar with the work of Bertolucci, I thought I’d give it another go and all I can say is that age and experience have brought nothing new to this movie for me. Boy, I really struggled with ‘Last Tango’ and for a number of reasons, the primary one being I still find it a boring film, and I don’t mean “boring” in the sense that Brando might mean it in this. It’s a slog and one with characters I just didn’t care about. It’s like going hill-walking with people that are really into hill-walking and won’t shut up about hill-walking.

But I guess that’s what the film is about — alienation, abuse and the inability of human contact in the face of complete grief, so ‘Last Tango’ is as far removed from erotica as can be. But do I really want to watch a sad, middle-aged man abuse a young woman for over two hours no matter how brilliantly it is acted and shot? And talking of abuse it wasn’t the sexual abuse I found difficult to watch. The sex in ‘Last Tango’ isn’t really the problem or the focus but simply the currency of the transactions occurring. What I did find hard to sit through though was the verbal abuse thrown at Schneider as well as the sheer intimidating presence of Brando (you feel he could crush her at any point). It can feel like two hours of bullying, maybe because it is.

I’ve found Bertolucci has a flare for sudden and brutal nastiness and sometimes I can’t decide if this is effective (provocative?) filmmaking or if Bertolucci simply has a sadistic streak running through him, the hat of frogs in ‘1900’ being a nasty little example. It could also be one of the reasons that despite admiring his films there has always been something stopping me from fully and totally connecting with his work, even the excellent ‘The Conformist’. ‘1900’ is my favourite of his films but that’s mainly because I’m an old lefty plus it is also one of the most ravishingly shot movies I’ve ever seen. But even that film has a number of issues and watching ‘Last Tango’ reminded me that if you want a movie that deals with sexual dysfunction as abusive power (and a critique of fascism as well) just how much more robust and powerful Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ is. It is shocking and horrifying but it is also one of the most clearly moral movies I have seen and one of the best rallying cries for the left put to film.

But the other aspect of ‘Last Tango’ that struck me — and I know I’m more than likely WAY off the mark with this one but I was bored as hell so my mind was wandering big time — is the role of the young French film director in the movie (is this Bertolucci having a further dig at Godard, his once mentor?).

Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character Tom, not surprisingly, looks like Francois Truffaut or a character from a Jacques Rivette movie. Is this Bertolucci having a dig at the French New-Wave? I mean, an Italian director comes to Paris to film abusive sex scenes in the City of Love in a hermetically sealed room all shot in cold light whilst outside a young, naive French filmmaker runs about the streets shooting some form of verite film on the fly and all of this feels slyly mocking towards him. Is this Bertolucci come to Paris to bully the Nouvelle Vague too? Sometimes it feels like it’s not just Maria Schneider who is getting fucked in the ass. As someone who, by far, prefers both Rivette and Truffaut to Bertolucci I began to feel somewhat protective of them against this Italian brute. As I said, my mind was wandering from boredom.

Also Bertolucci has admitted that he saw himself as the Brando character. Is this film about Bertolucci dreading middle-age and a loss of sexual power? He has even admitted that the reason he didn’t show Brando naked was because that it would be like revealing himself naked on screen. Showing Brando naked on screen would be like Bertolucci bringing “shame on himself”. Yet it is perfectly okay for Schneider to spend half the film starkers? The egotism and double-standards here are staggering and that could be one of the reasons I struggle with this. It doesn’t feel fair.

But controversies aside my main issue is the same as from my youth — I was bored, which is why all the above opinionated, subjective nonsense was running through my head.

So yeah, that’s three viewings and I now feel pretty much done with it. I think I’ve had my last tango with ‘Last Tango in Paris’.

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