Was there ever a film better suited for a damp and drizzling afternoon? I was in my teens when I first saw it, and had no clue about burnout or depression or life at the end of one’s tether. I went for the sex scenes, but Brando somehow managed to fuck her with his pants on. It was showing in the one movie theater on San Juan’s main drag in Puerto Rico, and I think it played in that place for over a year. About fifteen years after that, when I was in my thirties, I saw it again and felt that Brando and Bertolucci (who made the picture in their fifties) hit me to the core, Last Tango reflecting so much of who and what I’d become. Then, fifteen years after that, me in my late forties, the film seemed… empty. An hour into it and I heard myself saying, “Haven’t they gotten over this shit yet?” I can only wonder how it’d play for me today.
“In Last Tango in Paris,” Brando wrote in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, “I played a recently widowed American named Paul who has a quirky, anonymous affair with a French girl name Jeanne, played by Maria Schneider. The director was Bernardo Bertolucci, an extremely sensitive and talented man although, unlike Kazan, he wasn’t trained as an actor and didn’t address himself to the development of characters. This simply happens or it doesn’t, though Bernardo did do something unusual on the picture. Usually actors have to conform to the writer’s story and take on the characteristics he creates, but in Last Tango Bernardo tailored the story to his actors. He wanted me to play myself, to improvise completely and portray Paul as if he were an autobiographical mirror of me. Because he didn’t speak much English and knew nothing about American slang, he had me write virtually all my scenes and dialogue, and we communicated in French and sign language.”
Brando with Bertolucci (top) and Vittorio Storaro (above)
“Last Tango in Paris received a lot of praise,” Brando continued, “though I always thought it was excessive. Pauline Kael in particular praised it highly, but I think her review revealed more about her than about the movie. She is the best reviewer I know, but I think she became too subjectively involved in the story and critiqued the film from her own unique set of values and biases. Her review was flattering, but I don’t think the picture was as good as she said it was. To this day I can’t say what Last Tango in Paris was about. While we were making it, I don’t think Bernardo knew either, though after it was released, he was quoted as saying that it was meant to explore whether two people could have an anonymous relationship, and then sustain it after its anonymity was breached and affected by the outside world. But he didn’t say this when we were making the picture. It was about many things, I suppose, and maybe someday I’ll know what they are.”
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