Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Last Tango in Paris (1973)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 9 min.

Release Date: February 7th, 1973 MPAA Rating: NC-17

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Actors: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi, Gitt Magrini, Catherine Allegret, Marie-Helene Breillat, Catherine Breillat, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Massimo Girotti




s forlorn American Paul (Marlon Brando, picking up a role that couldn’t be further from his turn in “The Godfather,” released the same year) clasps his hands to his ears, reeling from the aggravation of the noises of public transportation in Paris, young Frenchwoman Jeanne (Maria Schneider) stops to observe his pain before hurrying on toward her destination. She’s hunting for an apartment and is fortunate enough to find one available in Passy. But the concierge is eerie and, when she inspects the premises, she discovers a man has already found his way into the dusty building, hovering quietly in the corner. “Strange things happen.”

Instead of being petrified, Jeanne is only slightly alarmed. In fact, she’s more curious about the other visitor than anything else. And, coincidentally, the man is none other than Paul, though Jeanne doesn’t immediately recognize him. Although he says few words to her and doesn’t bother to crack a smile, when he suddenly sweeps her off the floor, cradling her in his arms, she doesn’t fight back. And then, in an instant, they’re having sex against the wall and tumbling onto the carpet in a tight embrace.

Despite what could have been a horror movie setup, the intrusive, loud, overdramatic, romantic music continually crops up, as if to alleviate the tension of the possibility of Paul spontaneously deciding to murder the defenseless girl. Additional interludes of jazz also pepper the soundtrack, again hoping to create a tone of gaiety, of freedom, of impromptu actions. But when Paul watches as a woman cleans up a horrific scene of a suicide, in which a bathroom is splattered from ceiling to floor in blood, it seems as if “Last Tango in Paris” could very well transition from a series of carefree sexual escapades to violent, bloody terror.

Jeanne proceeds to meet her fiancé at the train station, before returning the next day to the Passy apartment, where Paul has had movers bring in some furniture. Once again intrigued rather than frightened, Jeanne agrees to continue seeing the man for unscripted liaisons, without exchanging any information – not even a name. “I don’t want to know anything about you.”

Paul is angry, tormented, detached, and depressed, while also harboring an explosive temper, which he uses to lash out at anyone who gets too close to his personal anxieties. Jeanne, on the other hand, is adventurous, silly, and free-spirited. They’re extremely mismatched, but when they’re intertwined, in the throes of passion, isolated from the outside world, they exhibit a powerful bond, reduced to mere sexual organs in search of carnal pleasures. It’s an unusual escape from their real lives – chiefly for Paul (at times their relationship feels very one-sided, since he remains tightlipped and she prefers to strike up conversations about their pasts) – but it’s an entirely effective respite.

Pieces of a larger story start to take shape, introducing various characters related to the central twosome, but they have minimal impact. Jeanne’s side stories in particular are peculiar and unsatisfying, shifting in and out of reality as her boyfriend films a movie that appears to merely document their lives, transforming every routine and nuance into something histrionic or cinematic. Ultimately, everything that takes place away from the primary lovers’ mostly undecorated rendezvous spot resembles filler – to stretch out the substance beyond just a collection of increasingly audacious erotic episodes.

“Go get the butter!” Some of the improvisational small talk ends up being lightly amusing, but nothing about this picture can overcome the potency of the sex scenes – specifically one that makes use of the aforementioned soft spread. The conclusion is also memorable, but only for its unexpected nature and not for its emotional resonance. The film’s frank sexuality (and the widespread controversy surrounding it) is sure to outshine the production as a whole – or as a work of art.

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10