Last Tango in Paris (1972)

The horror.

The horror.

Fifty Shades of Grey meets The Wrestler – or is it King Kong? A 48 year old Marlon Brando roams Paris like a rogue silverback. Apparently mourning the recent and mysterious suicide of his wife, he’s roughing up everyone and everything in his path. So indiscriminate and pointless are his outbursts of fury that he evokes his own incarnation as Johnny in the The Wild One. He’s rebelling against whatever you’ve got.

Brando’s formidable yet pathetically unstrategic rampage is sweetened only by interludes of semi-consensual sex with ingenue Maria Schneider (who proves however to be a fast learner). The anonymity of their tryst is retained as long as possible, the bare rented apartment where they meet a cocoon against a detritus-ridden world and Brando’s broken life. The infamous butter scene is a minor scandal* and not even the final stage of debasement Brando’s character needs to bring Schneider’s to before deciding she has the right stuff and might be his ticket out of existential hell.

But of course it all ends in tears. The third act of the tragedy sheds it’s earlier languor and unevenness and delivers almost everything one might want from a great piece of european art cinema, including one of the great endings. By this stage it’s got everything Death in Venice had and maybe more. For one thing it’s got Brando just prior to bursting into meteoric flames as he starts his long fall back to earth. Seriously, if you find the film simply too slow and too loathsome, jump to the last twenty minutes where Brando cleans himself up and tries to win Schneider over for keeps. It stands on its own as a fantastic short story about doomed and desperate romance. We’re never sure it’s been about love but there’s a lot more to it than lust.

Last Tango in Paris was Brando’s last hurrah as a leading man. He didn’t work again for 4 years until resurfacing, all salt and no pepper, in The Missouri Breaks opposite Jack Nicholson. He is almost the same character in it, but older and unambiguously monstrous – a villain.

Come to think of it, if I had to to cite a remotely comparable saxophone solo of a performance as Brando’s in Last Tango, it would be Nicholson’s in The Shining.

* At least the scene is. The circumstances of it’s filming, which came under recent scrutiny and opprobrium, may be another story. There are many opinions about it. Try seeking out Maria Schneider’s own account of what happened.

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