Widely considered as art-house classic, directed by awarded Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci; Pauline Kael said this film is “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made”; Marlon Brando’s Method acting in his least conventional film, courageously designed as post-modern existential love story – Last Tango in Paris deals with exploration of our inner nature, sexuality in particular, with true perspective.

LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Italy/France, 1972)
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
Produced by: Alberto Grimaldi
Screenplay by: Franco Arcalli and Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Massimo Girotti
Director of Photography: Vittorio Storaro
Music by: Gato Barbieri
Color, 136 min.

Last Tango in Paris – A Destructive Love Affair
In early 70’s, following the success with his drama The Conformist (1970), Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci was resolved to film his intimate fantasy about carrying on a carnal, purely sexual affair with a stranger; together with his colleague Franco Arcalli, Bertolucci wrote a script (Agnes Varda, French writer also collaborated in writing french dialogues). Famous Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi was enthusiastic to finance Bertolucci’s next project, especially when Marlon Brando got on board (just after filming Coppola’s The Godfather). Initialy Jean-Louis Trintignant, French actor should have played the leading character Paul, but after reading the script he refused to do it; the female character Jeanne was offered to Dominique Sanda (Bertolucci’s friend) but eventually Maria Schneider, anonimous young actress got the part.

Last Tango in Paris portrays a middle-aged American widower living in Paris who gets involved in a strange carnal affair with a young Parisian woman. Paul is devastated by his wife’s suicide while Jeanne is uncertain in her relationship with her fiance, young film director. Paul and Jeanne’s coincidental encounter in the apartment to-be-rented suddenly erupts into a sexual session on the floor. The two strangers eventually reach an agreement – they will continue seeing each other in the very same apartment. Both see this flat as sort of an isolated island, as the opportunity to temporarily escape from their lives. In this unique affair Paul, however, insists on staying strange, without knowing anything about each other, saying those things, names, facts are irrellevant in their relationship. Influenced with Paul’s sexual powers, Jeanne complies – this affair makes her even more suspicious about future marriage with Tom (boyfriend). As story progresses, the relationship between Paul and Jeanne evolves, containing sadomasochistic elements, into destructive emotional turmoil.

Last tango in Paris
Strangers in love – Last Tango in Paris (1972)

While initially distributed, Last Tango in Paris shocked audiences and caused controversy, mostly because of uncomfortable sexual content that could have been disturbing at the time. Originally it received X-rating in US and it held up over the next 25 years. The film was banned in Portugal and Italy for some time.

The qualities of Last Tango in Paris lie mostly with its atmosphere as well as in memorable characters seeking desperately for human contact. Paul and Jeanne (and not only those two characters) are insecure, alienated persons, trying to find anything around themselves that could be worthy, any sort of true emotional response. In Last Tango in Paris Bertolucci successfully highlights the romance in an affair that is fundamentally destructive. The film is not strictly plot driven and the most of its dialogues were improvised – Bernardo Bertolucci even encouraged Brando to make up his own lines. Some say Brando put too much of himself into the role of Paul, including his own emotional pain (as Brando himself stated in his autobiography). He dominates the movie as much as he dominates the young Jeanne in their relationship. Undisputedly, Marlon Brando delivered one of his characteristic grand performances, probably the last one in his brilliant career.

Last tango in Paris
Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider

The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (Academy Award winner for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, 1979) is brilliant – perfect use of light/shadows inside the apartment as well as memorable colors in particular scenes. The elegant use of Francis Bacon’s paintings in opening titles contibuted to the final image of the film. Bacon’s works influenced the color scheme for the interior of the apartment where much of the story takes place. The jazzy tone of music composed by Gato Barbieri is another sublime element of Last Tango in Paris – Barbieri won Grammy Award for composing this memorable score. Also, Bertolucci was nominated for Oscar as best director and Brando received an Oscar nomination for best actor.

This film is no longer shocking as it was upon its initial release; however, it still shines through its memorable characters stuck in turmoil of their own sexuality and more, existence itself; their frankness makes viewing almost uncomfortable at the moments. With this film (beside The Conformist) Bernardo Bertolucci undisputedly proved to be authentic filmmaker. Marlon Brando‘s remarkably intense and powerful performance together with beautiful music score and remarkable camerawork make Last Tango in Paris a memorable art-house classic, unconventional piece of cinema art.