Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Giving Last Tango Another Whirl
I had meant to send up this link last week, but, some other stuff got in the way. At Slant Magazine early last week, Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy participated in a lengthy and quite interesting back and forth about Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. The film, which recently debuted on Blu-Ray, was already on lots of people’s minds thanks to the untimely death of Maria Schneider this past February. Their conversation is lengthy, fascinating, and well worth the read -- and it prompted some further thoughts of my own, which I'll share below.
Howard and Bellamy discuss many things -- including, of course, Pauline Kael’s famously gushing review of the film, which sometimes seems to impact other critics’ opinions of Last Tango more than the film itself does. Even here we get a digression about whether the film can be called realistic, chiefly because Kael said it was -- even though, as far as I know, Bertolucci has never claimed that any of his films were meant to be realistic, least of all Last Tango.
Needless to say, the sex in the film is by and large the focus of the conversation, and Bellamy puts it pretty well when he notes, in speaking of Marlon Brando’s character, that “Sex is Paul’s means of distraction – some pick alcohol or drugs, and he picks sex – and his extreme behavior with Jeanne in and around their sexual escapades is evidence of the lengths that Paul needs to go to forget.” For my money, Last Tango depicts -- brutally, mesmerizingly -- sex’s paradoxical ability to simultaneously destroy boundaries and build them back up; I’d argue that Jeanne and Paul know each other even less by the end of the film than they do at the beginning.
But the passage that strikes me most in this piece is the writers' discussion of an uncertain quality the film has for them. This they see as something of a problem. As Howard notes: “It’s often tough to resolve one’s feelings about this film because the film itself is unresolved, and also in some ways rather unsatisfying…It’s a film of bold performances, bold ideas and bold images, and yet there’s also something curiously flat and aimless about so much of it. It was partially improvised, and it feels like it, which works sometimes (as in Paul’s outrageous monologues, in which Paul the character and Brando the actor are both trying to imagine, spontaneously, the most disgusting, disturbing, demeaning things to say) but also contributes to the sense that the film doesn’t entirely add up.”
I don’t really agree that the film is unsatisfying, but this unresolved quality is definitely there. It also feeds into something about Last Tango that I’ve long wanted to discuss, but which Howard and Bellamy don’t mention. Bertolucci initially intended to shoot the film with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda, two of his stars from his previous film, The Conformist: He had to abandon the idea because Trintignant, it turned out, felt uncomfortable doing nude scenes (that'll do it), and Sanda had gotten pregnant. So, Bertolucci wound up with Brando and Schneider, and in the process rocketed his way into pop cultural history.
Seriously, try to say these words out loud, and hear how insane it sounds: “Hey guys. We couldn’t get Jean-Louis Trintignant, so we’re going to go with Marlon Brando.” I’ve always tried to imagine what Last Tango might have looked like with that initial cast – not as some sick cinematic parlor game, but rather as a way to imagine the film that Bertolucci first set out to make, because God knows the film that exists should probably carry a “co-written and co-directed by Marlon Brando” credit. (Alas, I didn’t have time during my recent interview to ask Bertolucci about it.) But it’s hard to overstate just how different Trintignant and Sanda are than Brando and Schneider, not just in terms of age but in terms of everything they signify.
Obviously Brando brought a ton of his own personal history and neuroses to the character of Paul, and the dramatic age difference between the leads lends an added Oedipal kick to the proceedings. With Brando in the cast, the film becomes all about his psychological baggage: His image as a movie star and physically fading heart-throb, the various roles he’s inhabited in the past, his own inner turmoil (which would pretty much consume him in later years), his age, his status as an American in Paris. Trintignant didn’t bring as much baggage (how could anyone?) but it’s interesting to note that Paul does share one key element with the male protagonist of A Man and a Woman, probably the actor’s best-known role: A wife who has recently committed suicide. (Indeed, one can still see Bertolucci's film in part as a corrective to the romantic image of love purveyed in that and other European films at the time.)
The difference between Brando and Trintignant could be summed up in the way their characters tend to approach the world: Both are always in danger of being beaten down by the universe, and both seem to have something deeply sensitive and almost unformed within them, something they must protect. But Brando leads with his chin and gets clobbered, while Trintignant crouches and tries to cover himself from the hurt. As a result, the latter's tightly wound, submerged characters often experience crises of identity in their attempts to fit in – a very different state of being than Brando’s.
Similarly, Sanda had a knowing, worldly quality that stood in sharp contrast to Schneider’s naturalistic innocence. It’s intriguing to note that she was only four years older than Schneider, but always seemed a lot more mature and composed. At the same time, there was an aristocratic vulnerability to Sanda’s persona: You can’t quite imagine that her character would have been put through the wringer the way Schneider was, both psychologically and physically, and survived. Whatever Bertolucci intended for her character in Last Tango, I very much doubt it would’ve been anything like how it turned out in the finished film.
Do I wish, on some level, that we’d been able to see this hypothetical version of Last Tango in Paris? Yes and no. As someone who is obsessed with Bertolucci’s work from this period but still keeps Last Tango at a certain remove (it’s probably the film of his I’ve seen the least number of times), I wonder if I would feel a greater kinship to that imaginary first draft of this film. And, to be fair, in becoming far more momentous and startling than what its creator intended, Last Tango also became a more compromised work, which is where that uncertain quality Ed Howard mentions comes in. Though, probably, with its creator’s full acquiescence: Bertolucci was no stranger to using cinema to work out one’s psychological issues, and even though Brando’s outsize neuroses pretty much took over his film, it must have also given him some satisfaction in showing, more than ever, how a film set can be turned into a therapist’s couch.