Yes, there are lots of sex scenes here, most of them debauched, depraved, with the protagonist Paul committing sexual savagery to his nonconsensual, submissive female accomplice. But just because a director films aplenty of them in one roll of celluloid doesn’t mean its viewers, and in this case voyeurs, are entitled to postulate that this film is about sex and all its carnal possibilities. Obviously, the great lesson here is that taking a situation of out its context proves to be extremely noxious. The truth is, anyone who soaked up and opened their minds to Bertolluci’s enigmatic masterpiece would valiantly justify that Last Tango in Paris is so much more about sex. It is perhaps one of the bravest, boldest, sexually and emotionally frank films ever made.
Sex here is beside the point. Bertolucci uses it as an element to explore the nature of need, physical longing, and most of all, grief. The film’s anti-hero Paul, a forty-five year-old American in Paris married to a recently deceased French hotelier, projects his existential and emotional crises through objectified sexual acts with Jeanne, a Parisian free-spirit more than half his age. They meet in one of the empty rooms in Paul’s decaying hotel and have casual, erotically charged fucking. As the film progress, the sex become more debased and more aggressive. There is very little plot happening, aside from the psychological battle between Paul and Jean’s status quo, Paul’s inner turmoil that radically turns outward, and Jeanne’s shaky acceptance of the ‘real world’ with her filmmaker fiancée (a whimsical part played by Les Quatre Cent Coups‘s Jean-Pierre Leaud). However Bertolucci reimagines a form of cinema where emotion and psychology play important roles as the script and actors. The apartment, the centre of coitus, is where most everything happens in half of the film’s duration, where Paul insists to leave the real world outside, including their names, personalities, refusing subjectification of their sexual encounter. The more Jeanne demands to know more about Paul, the more Paul degrades her, punishes her. And the more she becomes enthralled, fascinated by his inner person.
Like most great works of art, it allows us to suspend judgement, but never disbelief, in able to empathise those that we see in front of our eyes. Bertolucci, in his graceful direction, and Brando, in his beautifully drawn, masterclass performance, did exactly that. The film as it progresses slowly peels layers upon layers of conceit, getting to the very heart of Paul’s existential dilemma. To him, sex is an act of escape, a subterfuge, a distraction to an entirely painful truth of his being, a man faced with mortality, bestiality and betrayal. To him, sex is the only thing he can feel amidst the chaos lurching beneath his system. There is an excruciatingly devastating scene to watch in the latter half where Paul belches out a monologue of anger, pathos, anguish and despair in front of his wife’s corpse, wiping her face caked with thick, white makeup and trying to understand this dead woman’s past affairs. The absolute tragedy is that he does not understand, and never will, the sole reason why his wife slept with another man. Paul is not portrayed as an intellectual borgeouis, but an American émigré with humble beginnings and a very masculine background, perhaps a close cousin to Stanley Kowalski, a part made famous by Brando in the 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (there is a nod to this in a scene where Brando’s Paul wearing Kowalski’s emblematic white t-shirt). His existential confusion, as we can rationalise, leads him to depict acts of sexual catharsis without feelings, attachment or love, or perhaps a revenge mechanism to the memory of his unfaithful wife. And Brando, cementing his status as the greatest actor of this century, delivers a note-perfect performance that goes beyond Method practice, finding a very human truth of this man trapped in an ontological crisis.
Last Tango is a mordant portrait of love gone awry, cynical of its world purview and pitch-black in its philosophy of life. But one thing is for certain, it does not shy away from the bitter, universal truth that nothing lasts. In the film’s extraordinarily pitched climax, where Paul chases a stricken, perplexed Jeanne around Paris, professing his real feelings to her in the real world, we see a man desperately trying to connect with another human being once more, another chance at love, at life. The titular tango comes later, in arguably the film’s highlighting moment, where Paul and Jeanne dances unconventionally amid straight-laced couples (a big middle-finger to society and its norms). It takes two to tango as they say, but it takes one to end it. Jeanne has glimpsed into Paul’s soul when everything was black, and when the light comes, it’s too late. It’s no spoiler that it ends unhappily, but several repeated viewings does not diminish its sadness or the shocking element to the film’s conclusion. Paul spends most of his time teaching a nineteen-year-old adolescent that two people can continually fuck without loving each other, that in the end he convinces her at a time when he began swallowing his own words.
Like most challenging works of art, it divides people. But to claim Last Tango in Paris as a pile of puerile sexual nonsense is an act of antagonism against intellectualism. It is one of most emotionally and sexually frank films ever made, boldly confronting society’s preconceived notions about sex, relationships, conventions and censorship. Bertolucci orchestrates a sad, devastating masterpiece, drawing the last great performance from Brando, arguably the greatest film actor to grace the entire history of celluloid.