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Last Tango in Paris

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A
Video/Audio/Extras: B-/B-/F

Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by: Bernardo Bertolucci and Franco Arcalli
Produced by: Alberto Grimaldi
Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Luce Marquand, Catherine Allegret
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it

Last Tango in Paris may be a disappointment for some. Heralded as an 'erotic masterpiece' at the time it was released, the film has mellowed considerably with age. What was once considered to be daring and explicit, is today rather ordinary. We live in a world of bare flesh and nudity, where even mainstream films such as Basic Instinct 2 or even, if I may be so bold to suggest, Mission Impossible 3, have more 'money shots' than something like Last Tango in Paris.

Nevertheless, Last Tango is a film that won't be forgotten easily. The sex scenes aside, the film is a clever and powerful tale of two damaged human beings interlocked in a fiery affair that is doomed from the outset. 'Paul', played to perfection by Marlon Brando, is escaping his wife's suicide; 'Jeanne' in a wonderful performance by Maria Schneider, is trying to save herself from a hollow marriage to a self-obsessed filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who is desperate to capture every moment of their marriage with the help of a huge film crew.

Although it may sound like clichéd melodrama, the film is not afraid to accept the seamier side of its characters. Through a brilliant mise-en-scene, Bernardo Bertolucci refuses to embrace or condemn the character's passionate affair. Instead, he is more preoccupied with objectively discovering whether or not sex can really be used as a solution to deal with death and suffering. Paul for example, seems desperate to know as little as possible about his new lover. Instead he is determined for her to remain an enigma. This kind of blatant disregard for individuality is never frowned upon by Bertolucci. Paul's desperate efforts to keep Jeanne's identity a secret is never played for laughs or satirised. Instead, Bertolucci is keen for the viewer to make up their own mind of the proceedings. Can sex ever really heal a person? Bertolucci refuses to answer.

Nevertheless Paul's desperate attempt to engage in a relationship founded only on sex could be seen as naïve by some. His repeated claim that 'here we don't need names!' does border on the childish. But that's what gives the film its power. It's the sight of a grown man so desperate to hide from the truth that gives the film its emotional intensity.

Bertolucci has a reputation as a kind of cinematic romanticist; an optimistic dreamer that creates the kind of world we would all like to immerse ourselves in. This is thanks on the most part to his 'mid-career' films, flops like La Luna. However, Last Tango in Paris is relentlessly downbeat. Even the casting of Leaud, best known for his idealized role as Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, is a clear reaction against the beauty of Truffaut's film. This is not a world filled with selfless men and women like Doinel; this is a world of raging egotists, concerned primarily with their own well-being.

Bertolucci is not afraid to inject a touch of surrealism into the film as well. A grotesque scene depicting Paul's maid cleaning up blood that seems to cover every surface as she happily tells the man his wife has committed suicide after cutting her back, neck and legs over a dozen times is disturbing and strange. Like all Bertolucci films the camerawork is absolutely extraordinary. The way the ingenious auteur shoots the passionate love-making is truly exemplary. Instead of going in for a close up, he hangs back, making sure to avoid that dreaded 'exploitation' word at every cost.

But it is the film's tragic end that really gives it its punch. Much like Woody Allen's recent Match Point the film resolves itself with the central character choosing their own wellbeing at the expense of those they love. The final act of bloodletting is so horrible and painful, that I found myself staring at the credits long after the film had finished. Yes, it's dark and yes, it's violent. But Last Tango in Paris is also painfully real.

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