Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi, Giovanna Galletti, Jean-Pierre L�aud, Massimo Girotti, Gitt Magrini, Catherine All�gret, Luce Marquand, Marie-H�l�ne Breillat, Catherine Breillat, Dan Diament, Catherine Sola, Mauro Marchetti, Peter Schommer
Written by: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli, Agnes Varda (French dialogue), based on a story by Bernardo Bertolucci
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexual content
Language: English, French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 129
Date: 10/14/1972

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

No Names

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris is probably more famous for what it was supposed to be than what it actually is. It's forever entwined with Pauline Kael's breathless review from the New Yorker, which called the movie a landmark. She promised that it would usher in a new era of adult sexuality in movies, which did not happen. (Instead, movies grew more juvenile.) Moreover, there are a few famous scenes and catchphrases that have become more famous than the movie itself ("get the butter"). However, aside from all that, this emotional, sexual jumble of a movie still contains some interesting ideas, and some gorgeous cinematic poetry.

Marlon Brando stars as Paul, a 45 year-old American in Paris whose wife has recently committed suicide. He happens to be wandering the streets of Paris at the same time as 20 year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who is looking for a flat to rent. She discovers Paul in the flat and he initiates sex with her. They agree to meet at the flat for more sex, but they also agree to keep it anonymous. Meanwhile, Jeanne is involved with a director, Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is making a vérité style movie about her life and also proposes to her. Tom is meant to be Jeanne's "real life," but he can't compare to the "fantasy" of Paul (Paul is far more "real"). Indeed, as critic Dave Kehr has pointed out, Tom is the "Ralph Bellamy" character, or the cuckold. Moreover, Paul and Jeanne's relationship ends as soon as they begin introducing truth into it.

Still, the movie cares more about Paul than about Jeanne. (Brando and Bertolucci received the movie's only two Oscar nominations.) As Paul complains, a man could spend 200 years and never understand his wife, and so it is with Jeanne. She's built like a woman, but she's just a kid, and she acts on her fickle whims. The movie totally understands Paul, though, the fact that he's in excruciating emotional pain, and the fact that he's trying to bury that pain in Jeanne. Some have argued that this is Brando's finest performance, and I'd agree; it's his least mannered and most emotionally naked, perhaps his most personal. This is never truer than in the famous scene in which he speaks to his wife's corpse, breaking down in anger and tears.

Finally, Vittorio Storaro's luscious cinematography fits perfectly, like another of the movie's juxtapositions; it's both stylish and suggests realism. The sex is indeed graphic, although probably not as shocking as it once was. The movie was originally rated "X," and then was edited by a few minutes to receive an "R" rating. MGM has released the uncut, 129-minute version on a new Blu-Ray, sporting the "NC-17" rating. Its only extra is a theatrical trailer, which, of course, features Kael's quote.

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