Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris simultaneously mocks and mourns the human yearning for love and companionship. The movie is a requiem for unrequited love, and a testament to the proclivity of humans to surrogate love with lust when trapped in a maelstrom of despondence, chagrin, and compunction. Bertolucci's purpose is not to glorify carnality as a virtue or to scorn it as a vice, but is to use it as an instrument to authenticate the veritable existence of a dark, ugly, and bestial side of humanity, which is so often suppressed and hypocritically denied in similar works on the subject. Bertolucci's penchant for art is limitless and he uses it to full effect in order to give the movie an aesthetic feel while simultaneously catering to the movie's explorative, earthy, and unconventionally bold motifs. Bertolucci uses his characters uncannily as a medium to foray into unexplored realms of human psyche while unflinchingly projecting them as objects of desire, disgust and depravity. Bertolucci pushes Brando and Schneider to a limit where they are not only forced to compromise their egos but also relinquish their pride, and I say that not as an offence but as an appreciation for his talent as a movie-maker. Renowned film critic Pauline Kael bestowed the film with the most ecstatic endorsement of her career, writing, "Tango has altered the face of an art form. This is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies." American director Robert Altman expressed unqualified praise: "I walked out of the screening and said to myself, 'How dare I make another film?' My personal and artistic life will never be the same." Eminent critic Roger Ebert has added the film to his "Great Movies" collection.
The movie presents an episode in the lives of two loners residing in Paris: Paul, a recently widowed, middle-aged American businessman, and Jeanne, a young, voluptuous, soon-to-be-married Parisian girl. The two accidentally meet up in an empty apartment available for rent, and a steamy affair ensues between the two on strictly anonymous basis. Paul is very discreet about his identity and whereabouts and even cajoles Jeanne to religiously follow the protocol. Paul sees Jeanne as a carnal surrogate for his deceased wife, while Jeanne finds in Paul a lover which her fiancé could never become. The two continue to meet and serve each other at regular intervals while also going about their regular business. Their sexually charged up affair, despite a disconnect at the emotional level, satiates them both beyond expectations, and resonates to the viewer an ineffable sense of frenzy and euphoria that holds him in a vice-like grip for the entire length of the movie. The dramatically botched, anti-climactic ending of the movie, which has been snubbed by critics, still manages to testify the axiomatic consistency of change in packing a punch stronger than the modern-day gimmicks.
Marlon Brando gives an inciteful, poignant, tour de force performance as the reclusive widower. Many people called Brando a chameleon, but I would call him a chameleon who hated his camouflage; a prodigy who detested his talent; a narcissist who abhorred himself for being a mortal. Brando as Paul is a cross between a sadist and a masochist. He uses every ounce of his talent to conjure up his menacing alter-ego. Driven by guilt and chagrin, Paul's sociopathic self is a nightmare for those around him. Roger Ebert wrote about Brando's performance: "It's a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?" The scene in which Paul confronts the dead body of his wife, who has committed suicide, is probably the most powerful scene ever filmed in cinema. It not only depicts the complexities associated with Paul's character but also highlights the dichotomy he suffered owing to his dual emotions of rage and grief.
Maria Schneider is innocent, charming, voluptuous and pitiful in her portrayal of Jeanne, a Parisian girl whose life is devoid of true love. Schneider, being fully aware of her limitations as an actor, incredibly manages to give a performance that is singular and effective enough not to be adumbrated by Brando's sublime, over-the-top portrayal.
The cinematography of the movie is vivid, elaborative, and expressive and is well complemented by the movie's sensuously evocative background score.
PS. Last Tango in Paris is a profoundly disturbing case-study of human emotions and is a must for cineastes worldwide, but can only be savoured by eschewing bigotry, prejudice, and conservatism. 9/10
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