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Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo Tango in Parigi)

dir: Bernardo Bertolucci
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Oh, my good gods do I loathe this film.

I find myself truly amazed that this film has such a vaunted reputation. Famous film critic Pauline Kael wrote a 6,000 word review practically calling it the death and rebirth of cinema. Other critics fell over themselves to praise Brando’s performance beyond the high heavens and to heap the shiniest and gaudiest superlatives that they could upon this film and its lead actor.

What the fuck were they snorting?

Brando may have been the greatest actor of his generation, but I find his entire performance, most of which is improvised, excruciating to listen to and behold. This is not acting, it's actoring: this is an actor doing whatever the hell he wants because he thinks he’s beyond being directed. Whether he’s saying whatever pops into his head, or smacking Maria Schneider in the head with a hair brush, he’s less of an actor than Jim Carrey is.

I mean that seriously. There’s only one genuine scene in the whole film. The most famous scene, from an acting point of view, is the one whether Brando’s alleged character Paul rails against his dead wife as she lies in state. He begins by cursing her out for the whore that she was, railing against her before he breaks down. It’s a powerful scene. I guess.

Everything else reeks of artificiality. It’s as artificial and false, unfeeling and unengaging as if the two main characters were computer generated or if they were acting in different rooms. These two characters are not in the same film, and I bought not a second of the two hour plus running time. I’ve heard that there was a four hour version when it was first released. I hear the US has been using it at Guantanamo Bay to get suspected terrorists to confess that they sniff girl’s bike seats or wear suspenders and stockings under their robes.

If you strapped me down and forced me to watch such a version, I’d be confessing each and every bad or nasty thing I’ve ever done in order to be set free. The credits would barely have started before I’d be spilling my PIN number, network passwords and the amount of times and quantity of money I stole from the church collection plate throughout the last financial year. Don't blame me, I have a yacht to pay off.

Paul (Brando) is an overacting guy in his mid forties whose French wife appears to have committed suicide. They lived together in a sleazy hotel she owned, being the same place she chose to pop her clogs in a spectacularly bloody fashion.

Distraught and tearful, he appears at an apartment in the 7th Arrondissement at the same time as an allegedly young and beautiful French girl (Maria Schneider) is looking at the place. After muttering some stupidities at each other, he rips her panties off and has awkward sex with her right then and there.

They begin some kind of affair that is meant to be purely sexual, but of course there are complex emotions at play. Paul at first asserts that they must not know each other’s names, and that they must leave the world outside.

Is he suffering from overwhelming grief, and using sex with a stranger to heal himself? Is he suffering from being an aimless arsehole who likes having someone to treat like crap in order to feel better about himself?

Jeanne, the French girl, is twenty, and is engaged to be married to a director. He decides he wants to make a film all about her, so their moments together, which are distinct from her time at the apartment, are being filmed as well. Her director beau is excitable and all over the place and has no idea what’s going on.

Paul is meant to be overflowing with machismo and pent up emotions as well as proclivities for strange sexuality that come out of nowhere. Jeanne is a flighty flibbertigibbet who sounds unconvincing in French even more than in English. Their scenes together are never erotic, never sensual, never believably awkward, and never believable.

There are famous scenes here, famous for the wrong reasons. In one scene where Paul uses butter as a lubricant, he sodomises the poor, unwilling girl whilst getting her to repeat some idiotic phrases against the social construct of families. In another, he gets her to stick two fingers up his arse whilst talking all sorts of nonsense about having sex with pigs.

These aren’t erotic scenes, but I’m sure the intention wasn’t necessarily for them to be so. They’re meant to represent his disturbed state of mind, and the strange nature of their relationship. There’s no representation of people unleashing their animalistic and self-destructive desires upon each other in a way that actually looks and feels believable. What they deliver is a load of pretentious bollocks.

Brando’s character is not a character: it’s a collection of stupid, stupid phrases and affectations based not on a written character but in whatever the hell Brando was thinking at the time. What comes out is nonsense. It is nonsense that has been raised up as high art by the high priests who lord it over the masses of the cinematic community. That this trash has been included in the same breaths as the works of James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence is bollocks of the highest order.

What makes it even more insulting is the way the film degenerates into abject absurdity in a way which illuminates nothing more than how bereft of ideas Bertolucci was when it came to figuring out how to finish the flick. Sure, it holds true to the Chekhov rule that a gun shown in the first act of a play has to be used by the last act, but man oh man is it a long, painful and stinky road getting there to the end.

In most films, we ‘believe’ the characters are ‘in love’ because the script tells us so. They tell us they love each other, and if we like the film or the characters, then we believe them. There’s no love here, though people speak of it (in Brando’s case bellowing it loudly interspersed with whatever idiocies occur to him at the time). There’s no believability to anything they do or say, because they’re not connected by sexuality, and they’re not connected by words. They seem to be delivering different scripts from two different movies; and one of them is playing the strumpet from a softcore porn flick, whilst the other is playing out the kind of unreflective masculine fantasy that would make Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer jerk off to if they had the chance. None of these elements merge into anything resembling a coherent film, or even a chaotic mess with a message, moment of believability, arresting sequence or sensible thought process for its entire length.

For anyone who still wants to push the line that Last Tango is an undisputable classic, I submit the following: what about the scene with the rat? Forget about the pointlessness of other ‘controversial’ scenes, what deep meaning are we supposed to derive from the scene where Brando finds a dead rat on the bed and starts bellowing about how tasty the rat’s arsehole must be, and how tasty rotting rats in general are? What aspect of his childhood are we meant to come away with; what facet of his wounded psyche has this illuminated for us? The scene is idiotically absurd and, if it gave me a laugh, it was purely with how badly it was done, with the Island from The Island of Doctor Moreau bellowing at the top of his lungs about his love of rat. Mmm, scrumptious.

Take the death bed scene as another example: Brando overacts all over the place and wows the plebs in the cheap seats with his outpourings of anger and sorrow. But what about the fact that the scene comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t make sense connected to the events that proceed and immediately follow it? By the time it is shown, the affair has been going on for a while, so the wife would have been dead for weeks. So when the hell is it supposed to have happened?

The film then meanders on as if it never happened afterwards until we get to an ending as pointless as it is absurd. All along the way, Brando is the absolute embodiment of self-indulgence delivering affectation after affectation in a way that just grated upon me the whole way. That this is acknowledged to be his best work convinces me that there’s no point to my watching any flick with him in it ever again.

I’m not surprised Maria Schneider rarely if ever got any work after Last Tango. She’s a terrible actress whether Brando is in the scene with her or not. Though she does have lovely breasts, which is about all she contributes.

Apart from the Ratfest, the worst scenes for me are at the penultimate stage of the flick where our two beloved protagonists are at a tango bar in the middle of the afternoon getting pissed. Brando’s using a British accent and makes dumb improvised declamatory statement after dumb improvised declamatory statement. He then proceeds to chase her through Parisian streets bellowing “I’ll get you, you bimbo!” at the top of his overacting lungs.

This shit is unintentionally hilarious. When I remember those scenes I just realise how absurd this flick’s status as an avant-garde classic truly is, and I just laugh at the absurdity of the world.

Loneliness? Loss? Comfort Sex? Rough Sex between Strangers? Not Getting Other People? Butter Up the Jacksy? These are all important issues. None of them really get explored in any meaningful way in this flick. I related and grasped not a single second of this terrible film.

Bernardo Bertolucci is one of those directors who has made some good films, and a lot of crap as well over the course of his career. He is also the dirtiest of dirty old men, putting more of his dirty old man waning libido up there on the screen than any other director I can think of, whether they be pornographers or not. I love some of his films (Il Conformisto, The Spider’s Stratagem, 1900), didn’t mind one or two (The Dreamers, The Last Emperor), and hated many of his other flicks (Stealing Beauty, Sheltering Sky, Besieged, Little Buddha).

Now I’ve got another one to add to the list. Good gods do I have one to add to the list.

3 times I’ll watch this flick again in a few years just to see if it’s as Ed Wood Plan 9 from Outer Space-bad out of 10

“That’s not a subway strap, that’s me cock!” – I’m glad you made the distinction, Last Tango in Paris.