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Last Tango in Paris and the Context of Memory

Whatever one may think of Bernardo Bertolucci’s chef-d’oeuvre about identity, aging, loss of a life partner, and anonymous sex, remember one truth about cinema – any judgment is wholly dependent upon whatever baggage – internal and external – one brings into the viewing at the time of that viewing. The 70s innocent attitudes about authority, morality, and freedom of expression are no match for those emanating from this millennium. 1973 is definitely not 2018, so when I read most of the pieces about the film written by contemporary “critics”, I tend to recoil in amazement.

Cinema reflects the attitudes and sensibilities of its time. It is created by filmmakers of a specific period – for people of that same period – who want to test their limits, expand public consciousness and expose and/or challenge the mentality of the status quo. Cinema is a sequence of recorded thoughts and images specific to the time and place where storytellers spin their tales. It is the most accurate public record we have of that society’s attitudes, fears, fantasies and passions.


Lecture over, so let’s first set-up the environment that was movie-going in 1973. No multiplexes, stadium seating or Dolby. No home viewing of any kind other than some bad quality fare from the 40s and 50s on the late show. Theatres would be lined up along the same street, most houses with one screen, maybe two. You would queue outside in the snow, rain or scalding heat, depending upon the season, and often the lines for one film standing adjacent to audiences for the film playing next door.

In February 1973, a glance down the snowy street at the marquees would likely have proclaimed the titles of 1972 holdovers: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Cries and Whispers, Jeremiah Johnson, Travels with My Aunt, and in the double-feature repertory at the end of the block – Sounder and The Ruling Class, with a midnight double bill of Night of the Living Dead and Deep Throat. Yes, that Deep Throat – it was the 70s. The line in which we happen to be standing is for a new release, Last Tango in Paris, by the director who had just wowed us with The Conformist.

 What started with I am Curious Yellow in the late 60s begat 1971’s challenging jamborees such as A Clockwork Orange, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Ken Russell’s The Devils. 70s auteurs pushed the envelope without remorse – or fear. To experience Last Tango in Paris in the same context in which it first appeared is simply impossible now, but we were ready back then.


Awash in cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s earthy orange hues and marinated in Gato Barbieri’s instantly recognizable jazz score, the story concerns, Paul, a middle-age American expat living in Paris whose wife has recently committed suicide by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. We don’t know the reasons or much about any of the unsettled baggage between them, but judging from Paul’s crushed and angry state, it has totally undone him.

Paul happens upon the much younger Jeanne (Maria Schneider), the fiancé of a budding film director (Jean-Pierre Leaud) while apartment hunting and they begin an affair under the strictest conditions of total anonymity. The physical relationship satisfies the older Paul only to a point, but when he breaks the anonymity in search of deeper intimacy that involves introducing their real lives, things begin to unravel and spiral to a tragic conclusion.

Schneider is a natural revelation as Jeanne, all innocence with a dark core. Brando turns in a lion’s roar of a performance in his own, inimitable way – improvising lines and going places few actors would dare go today. His is a performance so personal and age-specific that it’s difficult for any viewer under the age of 40 to completely connect to it. I saw it a few times in my 20s and was impressed; then I saw it recently – and I was floored.


The blatant renunciation of the shyness and shame associated with any overt sexuality had beat social reserve and political correctness to the gate. There was no #metoo because we weren’t there yet, so what you saw was how it was. There was much written, ballyhooed and renounced about the directing tricks Bertolucci used in Last Tango to draw the emotional response he wanted, but 45+ years hindsight is just that – clucking at growing pains changes nothing. What we do have is a clear record of attitudes, fears and longings of a period long gone, and there’s no point in judging or condemning methods now. We take it in the context of memory, understanding that it was what it was, and move on.

The film, and the stir it caused, still resonates today. Despite mostly stellar reviews, controversy caused censorship battles in most countries resulting in an outright ban in a few. In Bertolucci’s homeland, Italy, police seized all copies after the film opened and ordered them destroyed. Bertolucci received a suspended sentence for obscenity, losing his civil rights for five years.

The frenzy became so intense that critic Andrew Sarris complained that when someone discovered he was a film critic, he was always asked his opinion on Last Tango, and never The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Travels with My Aunt or Cries and Whispers. Pauline Kael – the paramount film critic of the day – likened the film to The Rite of Spring, the turn of the century ballet that caused a riot in the theatre on the night of its premiere. She also declared it a benchmark in cinema, and she was correct. It’s a film that needed to be made at the time and still needs to be viewed today, especially in our conflicted and extremely illusory – even delusional – times.


Following is a sample of the great Brando (thx to Dailymotion), as Paul, talking to his dead wife, primarily off the top of his head and quite spontaneously. They simply don’t make them like that anymore.




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