Artistic vigor collides with narrative impotence at Rue Jules Verne.
Nearly 40 years after its original release, Last Tango in Paris still carries the burden of its infamous X rating (now labeled NC-17 following the co-opting of “X” by the porn industry). Given all that’s played out on the silver screen since then, some might question what all the fuss was about, but taken as a collaboration of three movie masters, Brando, Bertolucci, and Storaro, it’s still worth a look.
Particularly for the first half-hour, Last Tango in Paris plays like it’s an experimental film for director Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Since then the duo have gone on to make numerous movies together, including The Last Emperor, arguably the zenith of their teamwork. But in the case of Last Tango in Paris, all the camera movement, light, shadow, color, texture, reflections, even some aural trickery, create an intoxicating atmosphere of film as an art form.
Narratively, though, those first 30 minutes - and the balance of the movie - are a mash-up of tones, careening from overly dramatic to overly comical to overly romantic with reckless abandon.
In the middle of that opening 30 minutes there’s also an implausible sexual tryst between two total strangers who are scoping out the same vacant apartment on Rue Jules Verne.
The pair, 45-year-old Paul (Marlon Brando) and 20-year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider), become regular sexual partners despite the fact Jeanne has a filmmaker boyfriend, Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who bears a passing resemblance to Francois Truffaut. No doubt Paul is using her to help console himself following the suicide of his wife.
Indeed, Paul sets the rules for their sadomasochistic relationship: They will not reveal each other’s names; their encounters are to be secret and separate from the world outside the apartment.
Ultimately nothing more than Bertolucci filming his own personal fantasy of meeting a beautiful young woman and having sex with her without either of them sharing their personal identities, the story lurches into darker territory late in the film. When Paul morbidly confronts his dead wife in her casket, he almost becomes a sympathetic misogynistic asshole.
But then he turns around and, with a haircut and better wardrobe, once again pursues his relationship with Jeanne, who has gone back to being committed to her fiancé.
Along with Jeanne’s romantic courting by Tom, who is filming his relationship with Jeanne for a TV movie (consider it a very early, French take on reality TV), Bertolucci throws in some commentary on race relations in Paris, delivered at an ultra-high 30,000-foot level, and contrasts Paul’s lack of interest in Jeanne’s personal background with her talking about her ancestry for Tom’s documentary. All that extraneous content sets the stage for Bertolucci to make claims his movie has artistic integrity beyond his sadistic fetishes. It amounts to the cinematic equivalent of plausible deniability. Young beauties and sexual fantasies are hardly foreign to Bertolucci’s films, though; Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers are two fairly recent examples of young love as seen through Bertolucci’s tawdry gaze.
The biggest problem with Last Tango in Paris is none of the relationships is particularly compelling, or even credible. Death, racism, sexuality, and personal histories (fictional or real) don’t inherit heft simply because the dialogue is in French.
In addition to all the visual flourishes of Storaro’s cinematography, it is interesting to watch Brando deliver his lines in French. Notorious for despising the responsibility of remembering lines, surely having Brando act in a foreign tongue added another level of complexity for Bertolucci.
With Maria Schneider’s death only 12 days prior to this Blu-ray release, the on-set machinations of Brando and Bertolucci are worth questioning once again.
There are plenty of stories to indicate the experience of making Last Tango in Paris wasn’t all that pleasant for Schneider, who effectively went on to disassociate herself from Bertolucci. No doubt working with the two older men (Bertolucci was 32 and Brando 48) could be seen as more intimidating than inspiring.
Perhaps next year, to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, a better quality Blu-ray release will be in the cards. The original cut was more than 4 hours long, so there’s plenty of material to present to fresh eyes. And certainly the film’s initial release, reaction, backlash, and classic status are all worth revisiting in depth, something that’s simply not offered in this shoddy, barebones release.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer. In this case, it seems to be one for a rerelease, as the trailer includes a scrolling list of rave reviews for the film.
There are none.
Picture and Sound
The picture quality of this Blu-ray release is a major disappointment. As mentioned in the film review, Last Tango in Paris will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. A little muscle should’ve been put into giving the feature film a full restoration; there are sections which are clearly in need of some cleanup given the dramatically degraded image quality some scenes display.
While the picture quality is sub-par, the English DTS HD Master Audio mono track gets the job done. Other non-DTS mono tracks available are Spanish, French, German, Castilian.
Subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish (Suomi), German, Dutch, Norwegian, Castilian, Swedish, Bahasa Indonesian, Polish, and three additional languages that appear to be Asian dialects.
How to Use This Disc
Watch the movie for its visual flourishes, Brando’s performance, and Schneider’s beauty, not for its jumbled story. Then consider its place in film history.