Certain movies are solidly “of their time.” No matter how hard they try to break free of the cultural context in which they were created, they can’t seem to shed their particular period designs. It’s not a question of when a movie is made. Many classic Hollywood films are set in the ’30s and ’40s and yet somehow manage to transcend such temporal trappings.
It’s almost always a question of social responsibility, art not only tries to imitate life but comment on and complement it. Take Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial Last Tango in Paris. In 1972, the erotic drama was a landmark, a frank and open exploration of grief, sex, and interpersonal emptiness. Fast forward nearly 40 years, however, and the film feels as dated and derivative as an X-rated episode of Laugh-In.
Marlon Brando is a disaffected American in Paris. Having recently lost his wealthy wife to suicide, he stumbles along the streets looking to get lost. He runs into a spry French 20-year-old, and the attraction is instantaneous. Before properly introducing them, they engage in the most intimate of contact. Soon, they begin an affair, he requiring no names or past information, she demanding and asking for personal details.
While sex is the key to their connection, we soon learn of other elements driving their need. He – Paul – can’t quite comprehend why his spouse took her own life, considering the complex and often open nature of their free relationship. She – Jeanne – has a fiancé who fancies himself a great filmmaker, placing unreasonable demands on her as part of his proposed art. As long as things stay physical, everything is fine. Once love enters the picture, however, things take a turn toward the twisted… and tragic.
Last Tango in Paris is a perfect example of something’s parts being greater than its ultimate sum. It contains a terrific performance from Marlon Brando, an equally compelling and evocative turn by the late, great Maria Schneider, spirited direction from Bertolucci, and a decaying Parisian backdrop that seethes with atmosphere and angst. Many of the scenes are very good, the dialogue delivering the proper balance of authenticity and human need, and the overall effect is one of admiration and respect. But in a world that considers Last Tango in Paris one of the greatest films of all time, there are obstacles to such a current quantification. Aside from the obvious pragmatic issues involved (in today’s PC climate, a 45-year-old seducing a 20-something is beyond scandal) and the “fancy that, free love” dynamic, such experiments in existentialism fail to resonate with a harried, high tech trained viewer.
Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, such interpersonal wanderlust was common. Men and women were looking to “find themselves”, an entire closed-off planet waiting for them to explore and enjoy. Trips to India for enlightenment and the entire counterculture revolution demanded that such individual import be paid. The next ten years would be known as the Me Decade and with good reason. After society struggled through its philosophical maturation, it was time for the participants to do the same. It wasn’t until an aging actor declared it “morning in America” that people perked up and started focusing on what was really necessary – materialism. Last Tango in Paris taps directly into such free-spiritedness, wanting us to disappear within the desire and degradation felt by these two souls.
Except, there’s not much to champion. It’s not until very late that Paul lets down his guard (a terrific scene with Brando crying over his dead wife’s corpse). Before that, he’s a heel, an older man getting a sweet young thing to bow to his every carnal whim. For her part, Jeanne is the kind of gal who’d be showing up on Howard Stern, whining about her daddy issues if she weren’t stuck in 1972. Her attraction is one of misplaced paternalism, a desire to be with the only man who ever meant anything to her. As the domination intensifies, as she agrees to do more demeaning things, Jeanne goes from likable to laughable. Brando is an icon but not worthy of the various perversions he plays with.
Some will argue – as is their bonafide right – that greatness is in the eye of the consensual beholder, and for many, Last Tango in Paris passes the test. As with something as complicated and contentious as 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s all a matter of place and preference. Like a fine wine, this film needs to grow on you and mature, finding its fulfillment in unknown, unexpected ways. Again, that tends to give Bertolucci et al. too much credit. There is no denying that the movie is well-made and well-acted. Those two aspects alone could be responsible for much of its majesty. But as for the storyline and the stunted, ambiguous subplots that go nowhere, the film fails. We want the trysts between Paul and Jeanne to mean more than they seem. Sadly, they don’t.
As a result, a determination of brilliance cries out for examination and explanation, to have critics or other scholarly thinkers dissect the motives and extol the meaning. Sadly, the Blu-ray disc of Last Tango in Paris offers none of this. No Pauline Kael essay arguing that it would change the face of cinema. No Roger Ebert review piling on the praise. Aside from an improved picture and sound, all the HD format has to offer is a trailer – and it’s the only telling thing about the entire package. Accenting the infamy and downplaying almost everything else, the preview plays with our expectations. Like the best carnival barker, it promises the prurient without preparing us for the often preposterous place-setting it sits within.
Again, Last Tango in Paris is admirable. It marks a definite turning point in the progress of motion pictures, one began with the exploitationers and continued through numerous likeminded foreign films, and there is no denying that a 1972 audience would be completely blown away by the frank depiction of erotic release (along with the language, containing numerous f-bombs and c-drops). But in 2011, such shock value has long worn off, leaving one with an inherent lingering net worth. From an acting and directing standpoint, the film more than succeeds. Everything else is up for debate – never a good sign when considering a supposed “classic”.