Last Tango in Paris
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Last Tango in Paris

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In the seventies our society began to undergo a series of radical changes that would affect nearly every aspect of our lives. One of the most significant of these changes is the post-sixties sexual liberation. The fallout of the ‘Age of Aquarius’ was a greater openness concerning sex and nudity. Pornography began to find a mainstream audience with films like ‘Deep Throat’ and ‘Behind the Green Door’ attracting couples to their screenings hard core pornography had been brought out from the sleazy downtown movie houses. Encouraged by the simple fact that these movies had record breaking profit margins the studios began to embrace the greater sexual permissiveness. It should come as no surprise that among the first main stream film makers to turn to this trend were the already more explicit Europeans. For quite awhile they have considered the American’s position on sexuality as provincial and prudish; proud of their own naturalist sensibilities. Many films from Europe found a home in the distinctly limited venue of art house cinemas, mostly in large American cities but starting in the early seventies middle Americans were changing their viewing habits. In 1972 ‘Last Tango in Paris’ hit the theaters with an explosion of controversy. While exceptionally explicit t his movie was by no means pornographic according to several standard definitions. It was so well constructed that it did manage to garner Best Actor and Best Director Academy Award nominations making it only the second ‘X’ rated film to receive Oscar attention. For those keeping score ‘Midnight Cowboy’ in 1969 was the first and only one to score a win. That was, of course, under the original MPAA system for rating theatrical films. Now it would be assigned the more politically correct rating of ‘NC-17’. The movie is somewhat tame by conventional standards but it still holds together as an artistically crafted representative of cinema. Like many older films this one has been granted a new lease on life with a re-mastering onto the Blu-ray format. Several, like this, from the MGM/UA catalog are being reissued in high definition helping the devoted cinephiles to extend their collections.

The writer/director for this pivotal movie was Bernardo Bertolucci. This Italian auteur built his career on films that rely on the strength of the emotional impact of his cast. This was his initial foray into English language movies but subsequent to this one he went on to ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ and ‘Stealing Beauty’. From a plot perspective Bertolucci is certainly a member of the minimalist school. There is only a scaffold upon which he can hang the actions and situations. Some members of the audience may conclude this film rambles boringly on. This could be supported by noting the sparse plot but it also completely misses the point the film maker is offering. Bertolucci is an amazingly visceral writer and director. He presents his work not so much for viewing but for the experience it offers. In this context visceral relates to the raw, unhindered expression of humanity through the interaction of the most primitive emotional responses. He appeals to the limbic brain through the sense of sight mostly bypassing the logic and reason centers of the brain.

Unlike most adult films this movie the main participants here are regular people in both appearance and demeanor. Paul (Marlon Brando) is a middle aged American man looking to rent a flat in Paris. Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is a young Parisian woman also looking for an affordable apartment. While viewing the same apartment they have an anonymous but highly erotically charged liaison with the understood proviso that not personal information is exchanged, not even so much as names. They continue in the apartment under these parameters which seemed to work until one day Jeanne returned home to find Paul had moved out. A short time later the bump into each other on the street and decide to give it another go. They go to a tango bar and begin to open up to each other. Paul is still in morning for his recently deceased wife while Jeanne has a fiancé but obviously some serious misgivings about the coming nuptials. This is definitely not a Hollywood romance. The ending is not happy, uplifting or romantic in any way, shape or form. It is brutally real showing this mismatched couple with all their man foibles. The sexual scenes are about on par with Cinemax at night but keep in mind female grooming had not yet included the currently popular waxing routine. This high definition does depict Mr. Brando in various states of undress which may not be the best case for high definition. The encounters range from hot and passionate to tender, almost sweet. They show a new use for butter that became quite a water cooler topic. It is almost animalistic fervor as he aggressively ravages her. Then there are times like sharing a bath were Paul is amazingly soft and caring.

The film is more like a visual tone poem based on the emotional impact of the actors. Apparently Brando was dissatisfied with the script and opted to improvise most of his dialogue. Bertolucci reacted more as a director than the author of the screenplay eschewing his own words in order to illicit an emotionally intense and honest performance. He may have grown considerably in girth and gained a reputation as a diva but this film does demonstrate the raw intensity he was able to generate plying his well honed craft. Blu-ray is needed to bring out the detail and vibrancy of the cinematography. Bertolucci is visually expressive and this is the first home theater release I have seen that reveals all the beauty of this film. It is rough and raw emotionally while exhibiting a sensitivity and visual beauty unmatched in recent years.

Posted 03/01/11

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