Last Tango in Paris (Blu-ray)
It’s been thirty-nine years now since the great Pauline Kael confidently predicted that an X-rated French movie by an Italian director with an American superstar was going to change the movie business forever, ushering in a new era of frank and honest sexuality in film in the same way that the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring inaugurated the birth of modern music. Thirty-nine years waiting for a revolution that never happened and yet LAST TANGO IN PARIS endures. It persists. It has suffered the fortunate fate of being judged on its own merits rather than how it did or didn’t change the world, and those merits, I am pleased to report, are considerable.
It begins with a man and woman, nameless, alone, on the streets of Paris. He is an American, craggy, gray-haired, a bit shabby and worn-down; he wears a leather coat that was probably nice five years ago. She is French, young, hesitant, and vulnerable, and wears clothes that show off her voluptuous figure with a complete lack of guile or self-consciousness. They’ve both, on their own, come to a beautiful, decrepit Old World building on the Rue Jules Verne to look at a cheap loft that’s up for rent. They exchange a few nervous sentences as they busy themselves looking at the bathroom, the dusty sticks of furniture, the view of the arrondissement. Without warning, he looms over her; he picks her up, puts her up against a wall and gruntingly has his way with her. Just as surprisingly, she welcomes it. What happened? What caused that sudden, improbable connection? In its own way, LAST TANGO IN PARIS is a mystery movie, and the enigma it unravels is what could bring these two people to this moment.
He is Paul (Marlon Brando), a hard-luck case whose wife has recently committed a particularly gruesome suicide in the run-down hotel they owned together. Paul is immensely, savagely angry at himself, at his wife, at women in general, but it is largely turned inward and shows up in small ways: how he shaves, how he opens a window. She is Joanne (Maria Schneider), a middle-class girl from the countryside who has moved to Paris and become engaged, seemingly against her will, to a young, attractive dunce of a film director who wants to film a TV documentary about her life but is visibly more interested in his masterpiece than in her.
We know this about them, but they do not know anything about each other. Paul rents the apartment they were looking at and suggests to her that they meet there for more sex, but he insists that they use no names and speak nothing of their lives. Of course, this is easier said than done, and as their private lives come to a head, they find themselves turning more and more to each other, and the fantasy of anonymous sex recedes further and further.
This short summary probably makes it sound like the movie exemplifies every cliché about French art movies with their affairs between older men and younger women, but there is a lot more here than that. We see Paul at home with his mother-in-law, both of them coping with the raw wound of their loved one’s death; we see Joanne in her childhood home, patiently tolerating her fiance’s intrusive camera (does anybody make jokes at the expense of pretentious movie directors more than other directors?). There is sadness and humor and everyday life here, not just sex; unfortunately, not all of it works. Joanne’s boyfriend is played for broad laughs and their relationship isn’t convincing for a second, and its inclusion hurts the movie. On the other hand, the brutal, furious soliloquy Brando delivers to his wife’s body is often regarded as his single finest moment, even above “Stella!”
But, of course, there is the sex. And that was the biggest surprise of the movie for me, because while there is a lot of nudity, most of it is very frank and innocuous, the nudity of people shaving in the bathroom or sitting up before bed. And while there is a lot of sex, it is generally presented in a way no more shocking than what you can see on HBO every single night. The idea that anyone could ever have rated this X just seems quaint nowadays, just like the idea that it would spark a sexual revolution. At the end, what we are left with are the performances, the camerawork, the humor, the sadness; we are left with a movie, and that is good enough.
Video: The 1080p transfer of the original theatrical 1.85:1 print is crystal clear, doing complete justice to Bertolucci’s compositions and the lush camerawork of legendary lensman Vittorio Storaro (THE LAST EMPEROR, APOCALYPSE NOW). The many street scenes of Paris leap off the screen and the moody shadows of the apartment are rich with detail.
Audio: The Dolby DTS-HD track does its work well, with no hisses or pops; although, unavoidably, it becomes very clear when the dialogue has been overdubbed (a common practice in Italian films of the era, as any Sergio Leone fan knows).
Special Features I am hugely disappointed to report that there are none, aside from a single theatrical trailer. A movie as historically important and controversial as LAST TANGO IN PARIS deserves commentaries, a documentary, something; while the Blu-Ray is perfectly good on its technical merits, the lack of any supplements is borderline insulting and makes it almost a certainty that a better version will be undertaken in the future.