In the Tango, the two participants have to dance as though they are in the midst of a passionate and loving embrace, which is the complete antithesis of a pivotal sequence in the tail end of Last Tango in Paris that involves the South American dance. Instead, the scene is a forlorn and pathetic unravelling of the recently widowed central character Paul, (Marlon Brando) who earnestly comments upon the nature of the dance in a ballroom that is brimming with couples partaking in a tango competition. Paul has attempted to deal with the death of wife through a potent sexual liaison that he has with a morose and young Persian woman called Jeanne. (Maria Schneider) Earlier in the film, he crucially declares that he opposes any sense of developing a familiarity and external picture of Jeanne outside of the encounters.
With this in mind, one gets the sense that the film is an exploration of the inherent fragility of relationships through the prism of two ideas. The first is an inherent paradox within the confines of a flourishing and stable long-term relationship, which comes from the plot point of Paul’s wife Rosa committing suicide. The act leads to a fundamental Epistemological pessimism for the main character as he questions his presupposed knowledge of his wife.
Did he truly know his wife in all the years he loved and cared for her? Or are these merely illusory pearls of wisdom designed to trick one into believing that they are truly happy with their spouse? The scene where this deep seeded sense of despair is expressed is when Paul is sitting beside the decorated body of his dead wife in a darkened room. He grimly states that “Even if a husband lives 200 fucking years, he’s never going to be able to discover his wife’s real nature.”
To say that Brando’s performance in Last Tango in Paris is powerful, soul bearing and emotionally real with particular reference to the as above mentioned scene is a mere understatement. Instead, one can argue that the most fascinating aspects of his performance are the scenes where he is in the rundown apartment with Jeanne. In these scenes, Brando imbues Paul with his most captivating and hideous qualities, with his sly vocal tones, dominant and beastly physicality as well as a subtle sense of snide cruelty, which is strangely comical.
The scene where all these qualities harmonise wonderfully together is a long sequence where Paul candidly talks about a supposed incident in his past. Brando combines these previously stated qualities with a sense of melancholic reflection, which is amusingly shattered by the end of the scene when he slyly suggests that these series of memories that he is reflecting upon may not be truthful at all.
Nevertheless, one can say that writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci gives Brando’s performance substantial weight. His employment of the camera is fixed and nonintrusive as though he is capturing authentic and significant moments of a person’s life. For example, in the previously mentioned scene, Bertolucci’s has a five-minute medium close up of Brando allowing for every facial expression and gesture to be conveyed as he is telling Jeanne about stories from his past.
Elsewhere in the picture, Bertolucci’s use of the camera allows for a compelling exploration of the second idea to do with the overarching theme of the inherent fragility of relationships. This comes in the form of Jeanne’s fiance Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is a film director. Through the course of the picture, he attempts to make a film called “A Portrait of a Girl” which is a heightened visual portrait of Jeanne’s various moments in life. As he remarks when he first sees his fiance, “We are in a film, if I kiss you, it might be cinema.” With the Thomas character, there is an introduction to the motif of idealism that manifests itself in the relationships through the course of the movie.
Thomas sees every moment with Jeanne as an idealised cinematic moment that needs direction and reinforcement, resulting in him being blind to his fiancee’s torrid affair. Bertolucci’s direction of these scenes in motion are amusing and striking. One such moment depicts Thomas describing a shot to Jeanne, which includes the camera moves, her state of mind, and the accompanying music. In this moment, Bertolucci’s camera movement follows the film director with a high and slow descending shot, which eventually falls upon his subject. The framing subtly changes as the camera momentarily matches Thomas’s twirling, which is evocative of a gentle ballroom dance.
In essence, the scene illustrates two things. Firstly, it showcases Thomas’ intensive obsession with his visual endeavour, which ultimately results in an ignorance of his wife’s actions. In turn, we see Jeanne’s new found confidence from the sexual encounter as she firmly states that she wants to improvise the scene that he is describing with a gratifying smile on her face as they immediately start filming.
At the same time, Jeanne idealises Paul and by extension the strange nature of their relationship. As she says towards the end of the film, “Do you know why I’m in love with him? He knows how to make me fall in love with him.” Before saying that she cites some of Paul’s qualities such as his mysterious nature and the fact that he is unlike anyone that she has ever met. However, the most compelling articulation of idealism contributing to the breakdown of relationships comes in the film’s final moments as Paul confesses his devotion and love for Jeanne.
The young Parisian woman is appalled by this declaration of romantic feelings because of three reasons. Firstly, she acknowledged to herself and Paul that the relationship is over because she is about to get married. Secondly, the man she held in such high esteem has disappeared. In the ruins of that idealistic perception is a man devoid of mystery, as well as someone who is ageing, desperate and repulsive. Finally, Jeanne ultimately idealised the affair as something intrinsically passionate. As she remarks at one point, “It’s beautiful without knowing anything.”
On occasion, one does get the distinct impression that Bertolucci is embarrassed by Paul’s attempts to start again with Jeanne, which is evident in the filmmaking. The best example of this is when the aged man is describing his life in voiceover, which is played over him lighting up a cigarette and walking in the midst of a swarm of dancing couples.
As he walks over to Jeanne, Bertolucci’s framing of the scene becomes ever more expansive in scope as more of the bustling ballroom is revealed to the audience, which is conveyed in a series of elegant crane shots. Crucially, Paul gets lost in the crowd of people and as a result is not in the centre of the frame. Moreover, Bertolucci cuts back to the dance sequences in rapid succession as if provide the audience with a glamorous distraction to the awkward scene that is occurring in the corner of the room. Despite this, one can feel that Bertolucci the screenwriter does not feel contempt for the Paul character. Instead, he conceives of him as a wounded animal whose ultimate end seems fitting because he will no longer need to go on in a world feeling the raw pain and loss of his wife’s recent passing.
Two scenes give this reading validity. Firstly, in the aftermath of a love scene, Paul and Jeanne share an intimate period with one another, and they start making animal noises together. The amusing moment is initiated by the former saying quite firmly, “I don’t want a name, I’m better of with a grunt or a groan for a name.” Secondly, in the previously mentioned scene where Paul is sitting beside the body of his dead wife, he says inconsolably, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why you did it. I’d do it, too, if I knew how. I just don’t know how.”
In the end, the real power of Last Tango in Paris is that it reminds the viewer how tenuous relationships can be, both in the short and the long term. It also illustrates the destructive nature of idealisation. It can cast temporary happiness however it can equally shatter the human psyche, which the tantalising last minutes of the picture only begin to show.