Saturday, June 2, 2012

What Happened to "Last Tango In Paris"?

By Lars Trodson

Among the cluster of truly memorable, dynamic and stylistically innovative films released in 1971-'72 — including "Straw Dogs," "The French Connection," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Godfather," "SweetSweetback's Bad Assss Song,"  "Carnal Knowledge" and "Shaft" — none has reached the age of 40 as sadly as "Last Tango In Paris."

It's bad for almost any film to reach middle age. Time is the enemy of most art, but this movie seems particularly wounded and spent. It's images, more than most films, have gotten encrusted by true events, and its style has curdled because of changing attitudes, changing tastes, and because the movie has had more than its share of bad luck.

Part of that bad luck comes in the form of what initially may have seen like a blessing. It's the only movie — the only one — that has a print review almost as famous as the movie itself. The review, of course, was written by Pauline Kael, who at the time reigned not only over The New Yorker, but over all other film reviewers.

And there are the stars, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Schneider never came close to the notoriety she received from "Last Tango", and for Brando it was the last gasp of greatness. After that, he retreated into cameos and pieces of fluff - which no one can blame him for. He was one artist who had given enough, and it would have been churlish to ask for more. But he also suffered through some devastating personal tragedies at the end of his life. The movie's director, Bernardo Bertolucci, seems almost like the forgotten man now.

"The movie breakthrough has finally come," Kael famously proclaimed on Oct. 28, 1972. The review was reprinted in other publications sometimes in its entirety. When the movie was released it was given an 'X" rating (immediately appropriated by the porn industry, which morphed it into 'XXX.")
As famous as Kael's review was, New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby was far more prescient in his notice, which appeared in early 1973. "It's what in the 1960's (a decade not great for jargon) would have been called, lamely, a Now film. It's so Now, in fact, that you better see it quickly. I suspect that its ideas, as well as its ability to shock or, apparently, to arouse, will age quickly."

Last Tango in Paris
We can no longer view the thing with any innocence or awe. Brando died in 2004 after seeing his name and his physique turned into a punchline. He endured the public criminal trial of his son Christian and the suicide of this daughter Cheyenne.

Maria Schneider died, at 58, in 2011. Each repudiated the film for their own reasons.

Schneider, barely 20 when the movie opened and ethereally beautiful, never forgave Bertolucci.

"Last Tango was a lot of suffering, a lot of compromising. I only understood what the movie was about many years later. It stands because it's Marlon and me and because it's 1970s, but somehow it's aged a little, it's kitsch. Compared to The Passenger it's dated. I think Bertolucci's not a real maestro like Antonioni was. He [Bertolucci] was manipulating everyone on set. I'm not friends with him," Schneider told the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia in 2006.

There's a scene in "Tango" where she fights with her boyfriend, a kind of annoying, fluttering movie director played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, because he is making "me do things I don't want to do." This is exactly what Schneider later said about Bertolucci.

"I was too young to know better. Marlon later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt. People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn't me," Schneider told the Daily Mail in 2009. Schneider later had years of drug abuse and emotional problems.

Bertolucci’s career, too, is muted after “Tango.” What was the movie he made right after? “1900,” with Robert DeNiro and others, but I had to look it up. He won two Oscars for directing "The Last Emperor" in 1987, but that is a movie, like "The English Patient", that no one remembers with any fondness — or even remembers at all. Bertolucci is only 72 (he was 32 when he made "Last Tango") and it doesn't seem as though he has done anything in years.

But he, too, was affected by Schneider's death. "Bertolucci has expressed his regret for never apologizing to Maria Schneider for making her do the taboo-busting sex scenes with Marlon Brando," reports Michael Day in the (UK's) Independent. "'Her death arrived too soon, before I could re-embrace her tenderly and tell her that I still felt close to her and ask her at least once for her forgiveness,' Bertolucci said."

More Pauline Kael: "Much of the movie is American in spirit. Brando’s Paul (a former actor and journalist who has been living off his French wife) is like a drunk with a literary turn of mind. He bellows his contempt for hypocrisies and orthodoxies; he keeps trying to shove them all back down other people’s throats. His profane humor and self-loathing self-centeredness and street “wisdom” are in the style of the American hard-boiled fiction aimed at the masculine fantasy market, sometimes by writers (often good ones, too) who believe in more than a little of it."

Kael couldn't be more wrong. There is almost nothing that feels particularly American in this film. Not the musical score, by Gato Barbieri, that is at turns subtle and overwrought. Certainly not the locale — early 1970s Paris. Not even the one American in the film, Brando. Brando was always an otherworldly presence, even when he was stuck right in the middle of the American vernacular in such films as "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "On the Waterfront." Even among the docks and the streetwalkers and the motorcycle gangs he was always the bird with the most plumage. His sensibilities -- sensitive, intelligent, wary but also innocent, in a way -- set him apart from the toughs and the bullies he caroused with in "The Wild One." He was the most European of American movie stars.

There is one scene in "Last Tango" that is justifiably famous: Brando sits next to the coffin of his dead wife, and he speaks to her with a rage and despair that is very difficult to watch. It's unsparing, profane and also lovely. And while it must have truly been a shock to see a movie star with the stature of Marlon Brando doing some of the things he did on screen, and saying some of the things he uttered, it seems almost to no avail. There's no profundity in the profane acts — as Kael saw it — and there's even less comedy. The entire enterprise now carries an air of dissipation about it.

"Last Tango In Paris" was made at a time when it was still possible to separate the movies from life, and that was certainly part of their mystique — this was certainly part of any movie's mystique. It was possible to go into a movie with a suspension of disbelief.

Now, for contemporary audiences, this is an impossibility. We're aware of the movie as a movie, and that is one of the reasons why even the most outlandish of today's premises (think "The Human Centipede") don't really have the power to jolt any one any more.

One  of the most shocking films released around the time of "Last Tango" — Wes Craven's "Last House On the Left" — had a famous marketing campaign that implored audiences to remind themselves that "It's only a movie...It's only a movie..." Today's audiences don't need any prompting.

Part of this cultural blending has affected the way we see films made in the past. We can't separate the reality we've learned since with the art that was made some time ago. So we look back at "Last Tango In Paris" and see little of the art, even less of its boldness and we think about what has happened in the years since — not only to the stars in the movie but to ourselves. We look at Brando and Maria Schneider — younger, alive, innocent, and playing right along — and wonder, sadly, about what happened.

Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" ( and "Tide Turning." (