“Last Tango in Paris” (1972), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, is all about the great emotional journey of a helpless soul. It is about the terrible cry of a man who desperately needs the touch of another human heart to forget, at least for the time being, the pangs of pain of his badly bruised soul.
The movie begins when Jeanne goes apartment-hunting through the streets of Paris. She is about to be married to a young filmmaker, who is making a movie of their life together. A camera crew follows them around as he talks to her and kisses her. Accidentally, Jeanne finds Paul in one of the apartments, that they both are interested in renting. It is a big, empty, cheerless apartment, with a lot of sunlight. Suddenly, within moments after they meet, Paul forces a sudden, hungry and almost brutal sex upon her. However, Jeanne does not object or resist, makes her body available for sex almost with soulless detachment. Indeed, it is a rape in Paul’s mind, which is needed to release his pain, his tension. His sexual release seems real, but the actual feelings of Jeanne during their sex are an enigma. Probably she accepts Paul, as he is the opposite of Tom, who says he wants to film every moment of her life, but is thinking only of his film, not of her. Jeanne senses that Paul really needs her, but Tom does not, and she may never be needed so much again in all of her life. Although she cried during the famous “butter scene,” she did not cry, or try to resist or protest about the sex, probably she did it for the humiliation involved in the act.
Paul insists to continue their meeting there, in that cheerless empty apartment, and she agrees. They do continue to meet, and at Paul’s insistence they do not exchange names. The affair continues until one day, when Jeanne arrives at the apartment and finds that Paul has left the place, without any prior warning. Paul later meets Jeanne again on the street and discloses his intention to renew the relationship. He tells her of the recent tragedy of his life. We learn that, Paul is an American, living in Paris for the last several years with a French wife who owned a hotel, which is not really a flophouse. However, the film clearly shows it as a place where prostitutes bring their clients. So he was living off a woman who lived off whores, and he was not very happy about it. He claims that he moved in for one night and stayed five years and was planning a move. On the day Paul meets Jeanne, his wife has committed suicide, for reasons unknown to him. He went back to the hotel and confronted his wife’s dead body, laid out in a casket, and spoke to her with words of absolute hatred. He mourned her in a deluge of rage and grief, because he would never know the truth about her. While talking about his story, Paul took Jeanne into a Tango Bar where he continued his story. However, this loss of anonymity disillusions Jeanne about their relationship. She tells Paul she does not want to see him again. Paul follows her back to her apartment, tells her that he loves her and wants to know her name. In reply, Jeanne takes a gun from a drawer. Then in a dramatic moment, she tells Paul her name and shoots him without any expression. Paul stumbles out onto the balcony and collapses. As Paul dies, a stupefied Jeanne mutters to herself that she does not know the man, he was a complete stranger and he tried to rape her. As if in a trance, she mentally prepares herself for the inevitable questioning by the police.
A lot has been said about the sex in the film and there is a lot of sex in it. But sex in this film is only the medium of exchange, where sex fulfills two completely different needs. Paul needs to force his manhood on the unknown girl, because he failed with his wife, while Jeanne responds to the man who, despite his apparent detachment, is focused on her, who needs her badly. No doubt, it is Brando’ film. Yet, Schneider, who at 22 had hardly acted before, shares the film equally with Brando and meets him in the middle. She plays much of the film completely nude, held in close-up during the long scenes of extraordinary complexity and did her job with extraordinary ease.
It is difficult to analyze and extract any rational message from the film. Roger Ebert, the great critic of films, remarked that, in a way, Last Tango in Paris is like ‘Cries and Whispers’ of Bergman. The whole point of both the films is to remind us that there is a corner in the human soul which is beyond the rationality and beyond description.
‘Last Tango in Paris’ premiered in New York City on 14 October 1972, was subject to enormous public controversy, as in France. In fact, it created an international controversy and drew various levels of government censorship in different venues, due to its portrayal of anonymous sex between two completely unknown persons and the pairing of a 20-year old girl with an unkempt 45-year-old man. In Italy, Bertolucci was accused for the infamous anal sex scene, the film was restrained by the censorship commission and all copies were seized. Bertolucci’s civil rights were revoked by an Italian court for five years and gave him a suspended prison sentence for four-months.
However, Marlon Brando was very much applauded for the portrayal of Paul in the film and received an Academy Award nomination for the Best Actor. Bertolucci was also nominated for the Best Director. Maria Schneider was not nominated, but emerged as a new sex symbol and she had several leading roles in the 1970s. Unfortunately, her acting career declined later in the decade, while her personal life was marred by drug abuse and at least one suicide attempt. She died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 58.
In 2007, Maria Schneider said in an interview that no sex of any kind took place during the rape scene, yet she felt a little raped during the filming of the infamous scene and that the tears she cried on screen were real. However, in a resurfaced interview from 2013, Bertolucci confessed that, he feels guilty for not telling her about the ‘butter’, but he does not regret his decision to shoot the scene. He wanted to capture Maria’s reaction as a girl, not as an actress, he did want Maria to personally feel the embarrassment of the situation, not to act the rage and humiliation. However, since there was a furor over Bertolucci’s confession about the alleged rape, Bertolucci responded to the backlash, emphasizing that the use of butter was the only thing Schneider was unaware and she hated him because of the butter scene. But he did not say that she was raped.