Some think that Marlon Brando’s Oscar win for The Godfather obscured that film’s greater, albeit un-nominated, performance by Al Pacino.
Arguably, though, the Academy got the right man... for the wrong film. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris might be one of the most controversial films ever made about sex, but its carnality now seems less interesting than the caustic brilliance of Brando, “smirking and giggling all the way to Eternity.”
He abandons the quiet authority of Don Corleone to play widower Paul, whose grief transmutes into a savage, no-strings affair with Maria Schneider’s nubile Parisian Jeanne.
Wild eccentricity would shortly topple his wayward talent, but here Brando’s unpredictability is electrifying as the anguished, self-loathing Paul alternates between charm, petulance and bitter wit.
Bertolucci lets his star run with the mood swings, emblematic of a film that dares to grapple with everything at once – love, sex, life, death, art, reality...
It’s the apex of the European art film, giddy with thematic possibility, frisky with feeling and frustratingly oblique. At the time, critics’ critic Pauline Kael was moved to declare that Bertolucci had “altered the face of an art form.”
Forty years on, this fascinating, flawed experiment feels more like a cul-de-sac, a retreat into a private corner of cinema where few have dared to follow. Bertolucci, a hot property after ultra-stylish thriller The Conformist (1970), had a simple idea.
A man and a woman meet anonymously in a flat for immersive, cathartic sex, a cinematic equivalent of the unshackled, libidinous themes then rippling through literature (Roth, Mailer) and art (notably Francis Bacon, whose twisted paintings adorn the credits).
Yet, by the time Last Tango premiered, The Godfather was the biggest hit in years, Brando was the comeback king and this small-scale character study became a global sensation that provoked a thousand dinner party innuendos about ‘passing the butter’ and saw the director smacked down by the Italian courts with a suspended prison sentence.
The irony is that it’s Bertolucci’s willingness to take risks behind closed doors that made it so scandalous. Barely into his thirties but already a veteran, Bertolucci stripped away his precocious style and asked his collaborators to do likewise.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro chops space into shards, the characters separated by doors, partitions or jagged framing. Even in the apartment’s fluid, open spaces, the two lovers do their most to stay apart when not ‘entwined’.
Surrounding them is the squalid, faded palette of Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s art direction, as if everything has been washed in shit.
Some commentators dubbed the film “pornography disguised as art” – but it’s a hell of a disguise. Barring one infamous exception, the couplings themselves seem coy, if not downright laughable as the lovers attempt to “come without touching”.
It’s really about power and politics, as Paul acts out revenge fantasies on the wife who cuckolded him by roping Jeanne into an increasingly depraved, sado-masochistic affair. The centrepiece sees Brando anally rape Jeanne with the assistance of a tub of butter.
Decades of upping the ante have lessened the shock value, but outrage remains in Paul’s toxic fantasising about a pig vomiting on Jeanne’s face while she fucks it. As that suggests, Paul and Jeanne are far from equal, and the film’s strengths and weaknesses rest in the lop-sided dynamic.
Bertolucci pays lip service to Schneider by giving Jeanne a subplot involving dilettante director Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud).
It’s by far the film’s weakest link, because Jeanne remains defined only by the man she’s with. Her inner life remains unknown, the film’s philosophy aping Paul’s assertion that it’s impossible to know a woman’s true nature.
The credibility gap is widened by Bertolucci who, clearly besotted with Brando, abandons development of Schneider’s promising performance in favour of filming her breasts. Brando, incidentally, mostly stays shirted; we’re a long way from Fassbender’s flashing in modern-day successor, Shame.
Bertolucci so worships Brando that he allows the star to define the terms of the film. Paul’s a misogynistic prick, but Brando reclaims his deviant desires as the tragic flaw of a Byronic, hell-raising hero.
Against such world-weary narcissism, Tom is a callow nerd who knows nothing about life; we’re invited to see it as a good thing that Jeanne succumbs to a real man.
The casting of New Wave icon Léaud suggests Bertolucci is raising a mid-digit to his heroes: keep your fancy filming tricks, Godard and Truffaut – look who I’ve got!
To which they might reply: you’ve got trouble. The script-averse US star forced Bertolucci to stick up cue cards; the claustrophobic framing, in part, due to the director conceding authorship to his star.
Whether monologuing in screen-hogging close-up or lumbering through a tango competition, this is the start of Brando’s anything-goes period, after which he assumed all directors would be as tolerant as Bertolucci.
At least Bertolucci was rewarded for his indulgence. Brando’s instincts create something more thoughtful and troubling than the film’s art-porn reputation implies, less performance than performance art.
The scene where Paul confronts the corpse of his dead wife, not to mention his own demons, is a masterclass in raw screen presence. Who needs sex when Brando can crack one off like this? It doesn’t always take two to tango.