LAST TANGO IN PARIS by Bernardo Bertolucci
Magill's Cinema Annual 1988


If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide, A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.--Kafka

What Franz Kafka said about books must be said about Last Tango in Paris. It is not a happy film but a deeply disturbing film-a film that strikes the viewer like a fist hammering on his skull. It was a fist when it first hit audiences in 1972, when it made the cover of Time and Newsweek, when it incited Pauline Kael to extravagant praise: "a film that has made the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing." In the years since then, Last Tango in Paris has lost none of its power to disturb, to incite anger and disgust, to provoke endless argument and debate. It is still an ice ax breaking the frozen sea inside us.

The film wastes no time in giving the audience an emotional jolt. It opens with a high-angle shot of a man (Marion Brando) standing under a Metro bridge. With a quick, fluid movement, the camera sweeps down upon him; in a dramatic close-up he is seen to cover his ears with his hands and scream an obscenity, a curse against God, into the noise of the Metro passing overhead. The camera pulls back and he is seen stumbling along the sidewalk in a daze. A young woman (Maria Schneider) suddenly walks by and stares at him, who, lost in himself, does not notice her. The camera follows her as she stops to check out an apartment-for-rent sign, goes to make a telephone call, and sees the strange man again in the telephone booth. Again, no contact is made between the two, as he leaves without seeing her. Off she goes to look at the apartment. She enters the dark apartment, throws open the blinds, and there he is, huddled against the wall. As the girl is recovering from the shock of the man's presence, the viewer senses that the apartment is a fantasy world, a self-contained realm. The viewer feels himself to be in that apartment with a man and a woman, who are suddenly isolated, alone, face-to-face. They carry on polite conversation, they calmly look at each other, and then they suddenly explode into wonderfully wild, fierce sex. They collapse in ecstasy, slowly recover from delightful exhaustion, quietly dress, and leave the apartment without speaking.

Bernardo Bertolucci has scored a hit to the solar plexus. He has exposed the viewer to a primal human fantasy-a pure, direct sexual encounter between total strangers. The camera follows the girl out of the apartment as she rushes through a train station. She meets a young man who hugs and kisses her; suddenly, a film crew surrounds them and captures their embrace on film. The girl is shocked by her fiance's deception, even though he tells her that he is making a film about her, a cinema v&W film entitled "Portrait of a Girl." Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud) naively thinks that he is capturing the "real" Jeanne with his hovering camera. When he asks Jeanne what she has been doing while he was away, she gives him the worst of cliches: "I thought about you day and night, and I cried. Darling, I can't live without you." Tom, the cineast of v&W, gets all of this "truth" on his film and yells: "Cut! Fantastic! "

There is a sudden cut to a pan shot of a bloody cloth and cleaning bucket which slowly reveals a young woman cleaning up a blood splattered bathroom. As she talks to someone off camera, the viewer gradually realizes that a woman has committed suicide in the bathtub with a razor and that the person to whom the maid is speaking, but who does not answer, is the woman's husband. The camera surveys the bloody bathtub and slowly pans past the glass partition to reveal the husband-the stranger from the apartment. Bertolucci has masterfully allowed his camera, like a detective, to examine each clue of this grotesque world until the viewer registers the full shock that the man whose wife's blood is still covering the bathroom is the man just seen in an intense sexual encounter.

The apartment door opens and Jeanne comes slinking in like a cat. The apartment is empty, but suddenly the door bursts open and some furniture movers initiate a comic sequence of moving in furniture. The man (Paul) enters as the workmen leave. When they are alone, face-to-face again, she offers the key, starts to leave, but suddenly asks his name. He rejects her desire to know his name and says he does not want to know her name or anything about her. He then defines the significance of the apartment: "You and I are going to meet here without knowing anything that goes on outside here. We are going to forget everything we knew-everything-all the people, all that we do, all that we-wherever we live. We are going to forget that everything- everything."

Finally, Bertolucci reveals to the viewer what is happening. He is enacting a powerful fantasy that haunts modern culture: the romantic dream of the recovery of innocence, of the rebirth of new selves that drives men and women to ignore economic status, race, culture, educational differences, age, and social class, confident that love-the naked meeting of two selves-can break through any barrier. Here in the private world of their apartment, a man and a woman will strip off all the clothes of family, society, and history and meet as naked selves-Adam and Eve again in the garden. Bertolucci made this Edenic dream explicit in the screenplay in a piece of dialogue that he omitted from the film. Jeanne says, "Adam and Eve didn't know anything about each other," and Paul replies, "We're like them in reverse. They saw they were naked and were ashamed. We saw we had clothes and came here to be naked."

As the film unfolds in its jarring juxtapositions of inner and outer worlds, the viewer gradually pieces together an understanding of these two strangers and the histories that they bring to their encounter. Paul brings to the apartment his traumatic experience of his wife's suicide. Only when the viewer finally discovers the fact of her death does he understand the significance of the opening shot of the film. Paul's screaming obscenity is an expression of his rage at an event that has shattered his life. Any death is traumatic, but especially suicide, because it exposes one's fundamental ignorance of others and reveals the abyss of irrationality that surrounds one's life. The self destruction of Rosa (Veronica Lazare) calls into question Paul's life, whose meaning had been built on this relationship of trust and communication. All the incidents of his life outside the apartment explore the meaning of her suicide. Paul is left in absolute ignorance as to why Rosa killed herself, but he is gradually led into an even more devastating awareness about Rosa. Paul had known about Rosa's lover, Marcel (Massino Girotti), but when he goes to visit him, presumably to find out what Marcel might know about her suicide, he discovers a truth for which he had not been looking. When he enters the room, he is startled to see Marcel dressed in a bathrobe identical to his. As the two talk, Marcel reveals that Rosa had created a life with him that was in many ways a duplicate of her life with Paul. This revelation of her bizarre secret life with Marcel only further confirms for Paul the agonizing truth of her suicide-that he did not know her. Paul's struggle to come to terms with the suicide climaxes in his confrontation with the dead Rosa, who has been restored to a beautiful innocence in her coffin by her mother (Gitt Magrini). Paul addresses her as though she were alive. After mocking the way her mother has disguised the grotesque fact of death, he expresses his deepest, most powerful insight into the meaning of her suicide: "Even if the husband lives two hundred ... years he's never going to be able to discover his wife's real nature. I mean, I might be able to comprehend the universe but I'll never discover the truth about you, never. I mean, who the hell were you?" This is his anguished and unsettling realizationat the deepest level, all persons are strangers to one another; in any relationship, one is always left with the unanswerable question, "Who are you?" After expressing this frightening insight, Paul releases his pent-up hurt and anger against Rosa, venting his rage against her death in a string of obscenities. Suddenly he breaks down crying in a tender confession of his love for her. Completely broken by her death, he lays his shattered self before her: "Rosa, my love ... forgive me ... I don't know why you did it. I'd do it too if I knew how." This deeply wounded self, filled with anger and grief, bitterness and hurt, Paul brings to the apartment.

Jeanne brings her innocence. Twenty years old, from a stable bourgeois family, she has had an idyllic childhood and now is about to be married. She has led a perfectly conventional, happy life untouched by the complexities of relationships, by any of the powerful, unsettling realities that lie beneath the surface of existence. Bertolucci creates this picture of Jeanne through the brilliant device of making a film within his film. Most of the scenes involving Jeanne outside the apartment are scenes in which Tom is filming her--a portrait of a young girl from her childhood through romance to marriage. The irony of this spontaneous, unrehearsed documentary of her life is that it is a perfect stereotype. Tom, filming her childhood, captures only an idealized version of her relationships with her dominating father and with her first love, Paul. Jeanne's romance with Tom, which he plays out before his camera, is a Hollywood B-picture in which they mouth the conventional words of romantic love-but remain distanced from each other, untouched by any depth of feeling or involvement.

Two radically different worlds collide in the apartment: Paul's world of death and alienation and Jeanne's world of conventional surface life. In their first return to the apartment after deciding to meet there as anonymous selves, they are naked together, tenderly embracing, playfully enjoying their bodies and emotional closeness as they try to "come without touching." Jeanne suggests inventing a name for him, but he rejects all names and begins grunting like an animal. Jeanne joins in the play and responds with her own animal sounds. Their attempt at rebirth has begun-with literal and symbolic nakedness. In their initial sexual encounter they remained clothed, essentially hidden, strangers; now they uncover themselves and touch their nakedness. Paul rejects names because names are the essence of social definition. He rejects language itself, attempting to get free of its defining, confining power, down to some primal form of communication of selves through touching and primitive sounds. Yet all is not tenderness and openness in their Garden of Eden. The way to new fife involves the death of the old selves. The longer they are together in the apartment, the more intense the struggle becomes to break through. Smashing the inhibitions and getting down to the deepest level of raw feelings reaches shocking intensity in the controversial sodomy scene. Paul violates Jeanne using her as an object to release his own rage and the hurt he feels for Rosa. Yet the action is not a simple sexual violation, because Paul invests his physical action with the symbolic meaning of an attack on the bourgeois family that rigidly controls its children, teaching them to repress their inner feelings, forcing them into superficial fives of social conformity. From the beginning of their encounter, Paul has been attacking Jeanne's family for being precisely this kind of oppressive family. Everything known about her outside the apartment confirms the truth of Paul's assertion. Thus, Paul's violating act is also intended as an act of liberation. Jeanne consents and does join in the ritual attack on the family. She expresses her anger and hurt when she shocks him with a short in the record player-but she stays with him. The drama of their rebirth reaches its climax when Jeanne runs away from Tom and back to the apartment, clothed in her wedding dress. She confronts Paul in the elevator and confesses her ambivalence: "I wanted to leave you and I couldn't," They enact a classic romantic scene as he carries his bride over the threshold and puts her in their marriage bed. This gesture is ironic because Jeanne discovers a dead rat in the bed, which shatters the romantic illusion. Paul taunts her with the rat, making morbid jokes that ridicule her conventional feelings. Jeanne cannot handle the assault, desperately trying to escape Paul and the apartment. As she is about to leave, she stops at the door and says: "I forgot to tell you something. I fell in love with somebody."

With brilliant dramatic irony, Bertolucci misleads both Paul and the film viewer. Both Paul and the viewer believe that Jeanne is giving him a parting shot; she is going to tell him about falling in love with someone else (whom the viewer thinks is Tom). In a witty and tender scene, as he gives her a bath before she leaves, Jeanne taunts Paul with the wonderful mysteries of her lover. Paul bitterly attacks what he takes to be a conventional love affair, asserting that she is alone and has to face it; her man can only be a false refuge. Then Jeanne says: "But I've found this man. He's you. You're that man!" Jeanne is not running away; she has broken through to love. Yet now comes another jolt-there is to be no warm and tender embrace expressing true love. Instead, Paul engages in another shocking, violent act that wrenches the emotions. There can be no rebirth of the self in love unless it faces death. Paul had just criticized any relationship that becomes a refuge from individual loneliness- "foxhole" love. Thus, in a dramatic symbolic act of confronting death, he has Jeanne shove her fingers in his anus in a reversal of the roles of the sodomy scene, as he asks her to engage in sexual acts with a dying pig as a pledge of her love to him. Jeanne joins him in an ecstasy of obscenity and vows "more than that. And worse. And worse than before."

Bertolucci hammers the audience again with a repulsive scene that assaults their sensibilities. Here is the final exposure of the self that rips off the pious clothes of sentimental love. When Jeanne returns to the apartment again, instead of finding her true love waiting, she finds the apartment empty; Paul is gone. Jeanne is devastated; this final trauma is too much, and she cracks. She summons Tom to the apartment, desperately hoping that they might enact the drama of rebirth that she had experienced with Paul. Her hysterical fantasy of contact with Tom, however, is quickly shattered by his categorical rejection of the apartment as a place where they could "live." Jeanne closes up the apartment and enters the outside world again. Suddenly, Paul is walking behind her. They finally meet outside the apartment for the first time since their paths crossed at that very spot on the day they entered the apartment as strangers. Will the reborn Adam and Eve come out of their garden to love in the world and to live happily ever after? This is the ending Paul has written for the film: "We left the apartment, and now we begin again with love and all the rest of it." This is the reborn Paul's dream, but she does not share it. Jeanne, in a state of total shock and confusion, says: "I don't understand anything any more." As they walk along the street, Paul ignores Jeanne's reality and tells her who he is, reciting the startling facts of his life as though they were trivial. Ironically, he does not see that each word is a hammer blow to Jeanne, smashing her into emotional pieces. They wind up in a shabby bar where a tango dance contest is in progress. The dancers glide through their intricately synchronized gestures-two moving as one yet frozen in a formal relationship like graceful puppets, without emotion or personal contact. Like the dancers, Paul and Jeanne are physically close but emotionally distant. When he says, "I love you and I want to live with you," Jeanne sarcastically replies, "In your flophouse?" He still does not perceive her alienation and replies in the language of the traditional lover: "What the hell difference does it make if I have a flophouse or a hotel or a castle? I love you!" To the shattered Jeanne, that statement now makes all the difference. They dance a drunken parody of the tango, crazily moving around the dance floor, no more in touch than the dancers they mock. When they return to their table, Jeanne finally gathers the courage to tell Paul what he is too blind to see: "It's finished." In an ultimate act of noncommunication and rejection, she masturbates the bewildered, uncomprehending Paul and runs away. Paul chases her through the streets into her apartment building, where he finally confronts her in her apartment. Totally unaware of the great gulf that separates them, he cannot see the uncomprehending fear that stares out of Jeanne's eyes.

Paul is ready to act out the final reconciliation scene of his imaginary Hollywood film. In a flourish of romantic hyperbole, he confesses his love: "You ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia. Now I've found you. And I love you. I want to know your name." Paul's romantic comedy suddenly turns into tragedy. As the terrified, alienated Jeanne gives her name, she shoots and kills him. Paul staggers out to the balcony to die while the stunned Jeanne rehearses her speech to the police: "I don't know him. I don't know who he is. He's a madman. I don't know his name." Bertolucci swings the final ice ax right between the eyes. The great dream of rebirth ends in death. Paul and Jeanne are finally unable to reconcile the inner world of naked contact with the outer world of their past selves. The terrible irony is that after the catharsis of the apartment, Paul and Jeanne emerge into the world still strangers. Paul, projecting his fantasy of beginning again with love and all the rest onto Jeanne, never sees her reality outside the apartment. Jeanne, torn out of her surface world of external relations by the traumatic descent into the self, cannot finally handle Paul's extreme claims and retreats back into her safe, superficial world. Even after the intense encounter of the apartment, the man she knew in such nakedness, she did not know at all. Jeanne does not lie when she says, "I don't know who he is."

Last Tango in Paris is a masterpiece in which all the elements of the filmmaker's art are perfectly integrated in an artistic whole. Bertolucci brilliantly structures his film as a montage of narrative fragments which constantly shift between three stories: his, hers, and theirs. This fractured narrative line creates constant visual surprise as the film moves back and forth between fragments of the three worlds. Bertolucci's daring use of jump cutting creates the dramatic clash of these incongruous worlds as the viewers experience the shock of seeing Jeanne's and Paul's radically different lives suddenly juxtaposed to each other.

The most powerful jump cut in the film orccurs when Jeanne and Tom embrace in the train station as he films their "true" love story. The viewer is visually stunned by a jump cut to a shot of a bloody cloth which suddenly ushers in the shocking reality of a suicide. There is another beautifully timed jump cut when Paul says that in the apartment they will forget everything in the outside world. Suddenly, the viewer is puzzled by a close-up of a hand searching in a closet-a brilliant shift to Paul's world, where the viewer will follow that hand groping for a sign until it confronts the harsh reality Paul thinks he can forget: Rosa's suicide.

The artistic element that stands out above all others in Last Tango in Paris is the acting. An interior drama exploring the powerful forces of the inner life and the complexity of personal relationships, its successful realization depends largely upon the actors. Bertolucci's casting was exceptional: Maria Schneider, with her unself-conscious sexuality yet open and innocent baby face, is exactly right as Jeanne. Jean-Pierre Leaud, the star of many New Wave films, is a wonderfully ironic choice to portray a caricature of cinema verite filmmakers.

The star, however, is Marlon Brando, who gives a tour de force performance. Brando is brilliant, but much of the credit must go to Bertolucci's direction, which called forth from Brando a range and depth of feeling and expression that no other role, not even that of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), had demanded of him. The extraordinary technique that Bertolucci used to create Paul was to integrate Brando's real life into the fictional character, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. He gave Paul part of Brando's personal and film identity. In the scene in which the audience discovers that the stranger in the apartment is the husband of the dead woman, it hears the maid recite his history: a boxer, an actor, a racketeer on the waterfront in New York-all allusions to Brando's personal life as well as to his roles in other films. More important, Bertolucci subtly directs Brando's improvisational acting style. Paul's central speeches, his touching memories of his childhood on the farm, his powerful diatribe against foxhole love, and his eloquent dialogue with the dead Rosa are all improvised-improvised out of Brando's personal life. This brilliant collaboration of the director and the actor transmutes aspects of Brando's fife into an extraordinary fictional character who powerfully expresses some of the deepest feelings and desires of his audience.

Franz Kafka said that books that disturb and upset are needed-not happy books, which "we could, if need be, write ourselves." Such films are also needed-films such as Last Tango in Paris, which continues to explode sentimental ideas about love and relationships, which haunts its audience with the pathos of its closing refrain: "I don't know him. I don't know who he is," reminding us again and again of our permanent strangeness.