Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

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Davey the Fat Boy
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Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 22 Mar 2009, 23:36

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My favorite Leonard Cohen song includes the following lines:

We told her she was beautiful,
we told her she was free
but none of us would meet her in
the House of Mystery,
the House of Mystery.


Revisiting Last Tango in Paris again the other night, I kept thinking about the words "the House of Mystery". In the past I'll confess I had difficulty with this film. I got stuck where I think a lot of people get stuck - wondering whether it was realistic that these two people would come together in the way the film shows them doing so. From the very beginning it makes little sense. Why is he even in the apartment? He doesn't need a place to live, and he doesn't follow her in. It simply seems like both of these people are drawn to this place. For this film to work at all, I think you have to proceed from that point. This film probably wasn't intended as a realistic scenario about these two individuals. It is about a place that some people find themselves in for any number of reasons. A House of Mystery.

The mystery being worked out in this particular house is an impossible one: What is our true nature? Absent the context that our lives impose on us - who are we really? Can we ever really know each other...or even ourselves?

That Brando's Paul has come to this place out of profound grief is clear. Bertolucci is careful to let us in on his real life outside of the apartment, but only in a way that is almost as oddly decontextualized as the world he tries to create in his new domain. We are never allowed to see what his prior life was like. There are no flashbacks to that time. Instead we see him pick through the debris of that life - alternating between rage and impotence as he tries to make sense of it all. He is tired of the lies that dominate our lives - the make-up his mother-in-law insists on putting on his wife's corpse being just one example that inspires revulsion in him. So it makes sense that he would seek a place of brutal honesty - a place where intimacy is not as polite and loving as we wish we were, but us vulgar and imperfect as we actually are.

Why Schneider's Jeanne is drawn to this place and subjects herself to Paul's cruelties has been a sticking point for people since the film was released. What does she get from the deal? People talk about this film as if it is about mutual grief and suffering, but the glimpses we get into her life don't show us a woman in pain – at least not the kind of pain Paul is in. The supposed “vapidity” of her filmmaker fiancé Tom is often cited, but that loads the deck against him unfairly. In another film the same character would be viewed in far more positive terms. But in a film about stripping away artifice, Tom’s romanticism can not help but look shallow. Of course there is an entire side conversation to be had about this character and his zeal for cinema (The casting of Jean-Pierre Leaud would seem to confirm that he is meant as a dig at Truffaut) – but keeping on track for now, Bertolucci seems to be indulging in a bit of loving contempt for the shuck and jive of documentary filmmaking along with all of the other forms of bullshit in the world. Whether Schneider's Jeanne is as turned off by the artificial quality of Tom's work and his general effusiveness we don’t know. But she does seem to grasp the artificiality of it all and certainly seems to resent the intrusion of his camera crew more than a little bit.

Ultimately though I don’t think she is drawn to this place because anything is all that wrong with her life. She is simply there there to find something real. She is young and still believes on some level that a person can actually live in a place like this. Brando’s Paul is under no such illusion. In a remarkable monologue delivered to his wife’s body he seems to find the catharsis he needs to move forward. Mentally he has left the place where he and Jeanne have connected. This is manifested physically as the next time Jeanne returns to the apartment, she finds him completely moved out.

Angry and betrayed at first, it becomes clear that she was never there for him at all – but rather was there to be in that place. Instead of mourning the loss of a lover, she simply invites Tom to move in so they can start their life there. At first he is taken with the size of it (the amount of freedom it allows), and begins immediately role-playing with her. Then suddenly he stops and says “We can't play like children any more, Jeanne” concluding finally, “This flat, it won't work for us.” She stays behind to close the windows and return the key. “There's a lot to do” she says.

On her way home she is approached by Paul again – for the first time outside of their domain. He is dressed up and suddenly willing to engage on the more mundane terms that the outside world demands. They duck into a café with a tango contest going on where the rigid dance of the participants almost taunts them. Brando invites her to dance among them (essentially arguing in the process that they can somehow live among the bullshit of the real world without succumbing to it), but they are driven from the dance floor. Paul’s illusion that they can live together in the real world is as naïve as Jeanne’s notion that she could live forever in that apartment. The film’s shocking conclusion is the only merciful ending left for Paul.

Anyhow I've said enough, but there is an awful lot more to be said about this movie. I am looking forward to all of your thoughts on it.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Snarfyguy » 23 Mar 2009, 13:50

I'll rent it tomorrow evening and report back here.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby The Modernist » 23 Mar 2009, 17:45

I'm watching it tonight.

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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Matt Wilson » 24 Mar 2009, 02:59

Great write-up, Davey --worthy of any film criticism I've read on the film anyway. The role was autobiographical for Brando as well. He came up with all the stuff about growing up on a farm and dealing with his father. Bertolucci just let the camera roll and loved what Marlon said. He thought his camera wasn't worthy of Brando's acting. :lol:

After that Marlon said he would never again give of himself that way for the camera, that the audience couldn't tell the difference anyway. And he never even came near that level of emotion again for a film. I don't think he was even involved with any role post 1972 like he was with Godfather and Last Tango but that was okay, he'd given us enough by then.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Snarfyguy » 24 Mar 2009, 03:34

Lance Matthew wrote: I don't think he was even involved with any role post 1972 like he was with Godfather and Last Tango but that was okay, he'd given us enough by then.

Heck, he'd given us enough by Mutiny on the Bounty. Now that's a Brando movie!
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Snarfyguy » 24 Mar 2009, 03:34

Dubble post.
Last edited by Snarfyguy on 25 Mar 2009, 04:57, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Belle Lettre » 24 Mar 2009, 06:47

I have no difficulty understanding why Jeanne kept going back to that flat - if I knew I was going to get shagged rotten by Marlon Brando every time I went there, er..need I say more?

There's a good deal more wrong with her than simple dissatisfaction with her fiance, I think. Something to do with her father. She goes bananas whenever he's mentioned, and Paul's donning of his (the father's) military cap at the end is presumably what sends her over the edge. And that diatribe against the family Paul forces her to say during the infamous butter scene..it's all there.

But it's Brando's portrayal of grief that stays with me. Particularly as he is given no explanation for his wife's decision to commit suicide. As Davey says, his monologue to her corpse is powerful indeed.

I love that film.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 24 Mar 2009, 08:05

Belle Lettre wrote:and Paul's donning of his (the father's) military cap at the end is presumably what sends her over the edge.


I'm glad you brought the issue of her father up. I was going to touch on the detail above in my initial post but couldn't find the right words.

I'm not sure that I get the exact same thing as you regarding her father, but you intrigued me enough to look up a transcript of the film to see if I missed something. Here is their first exchange regarding her father:

http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scri ... cript.html

The colonel had green eyes
and shiny boots.

I worshipped him.

He was so handsome in his uniform.

What a steaming pile of horseshit.

What? Don't...

All uniforms are bullshit.


Now perhaps she is lying about "worshipping" her father (Brando intimates later that he might be lying about his back story - then refers back to milking cows again later - suggesting that it probably was true) - or maybe it was as simple as seeing him in a uniform....taking on the guise of bullshit essentially - that sets her off.

Even so - I don't dismiss your reading of the father issue at all. I'm just unclear on it. Truth and lies are hard to separate in this film.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Dr Benway » 24 Mar 2009, 22:52

Belle Lettre wrote:I have no difficulty understanding why Jeanne kept going back to that flat - if I knew I was going to get shagged rotten by Marlon Brando every time I went there, er..need I say more?



I see butters gone up again.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Belle Lettre » 25 Mar 2009, 03:26

My fingers slipped... :D
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Belle Lettre » 25 Mar 2009, 03:30

Er..going back to the discussion about Jeanne's father,Davey, I took it that she found Paul's wearing the hat to be an insult too far against her father/the family/some combination thereof. Or am I being too literal?

I've forgotten how he was said to have died, as I'm going by the last time I saw the film as I haven't had a chance to watch it again for Film Club. If it was in military action of some kind that would account for her own grief and sense of loss.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby The Modernist » 25 Mar 2009, 20:00

Belle Lettre wrote:Er..going back to the discussion about Jeanne's father,Davey, I took it that she found Paul's wearing the hat to be an insult too far against her father/the family/some combination thereof. Or am I being too literal?

I've forgotten how he was said to have died, as I'm going by the last time I saw the film as I haven't had a chance to watch it again for Film Club. If it was in military action of some kind that would account for her own grief and sense of loss.


I would certainly say her father is very important in this and you are right to point out the significance of her shooting Brando at the moment he wears her father's helmet. I don't see it as simply mourning for her father however or protecting her family's honour, I see it as much more complex than that. Her attitude towards her father reminds me of that Sylvia Plath poem where she casts her father as a fascist, while admitting incestuous feelings towards him. I think Jeanne is similarly conflicted. This may be one reason why she involves herself in a masochistic affair with a much older man. She seems both attracted and repulsed by her feelings, and passively allows the various degradations almost as punishment for these feelings. I don't think it is too much of a Freudian stretch to speculate she is inviting the punishments and the sexual attention from her father.
It is important to note that she comes from a bourgeouis background, and like many young Europeans of that time rejects this background whilst simultaneously also being attracted to the secure protective certainties of childhood. She is a child of '68 and politically radical ( she wants to name her son Fidal). Her family on the other hand are associated with older, reactionary politics, this is spelt out clearly to us through the racist references made towards arabs by her mother and the housekeeper (who talks proudly of the father training the dogs to attack arabs only!). We know the father was a colonel in the army, although it's not stated explicitly, I think we can assume he would have served time in Algeria suppressing the independent movement. I think to Jeanne he would have represented this colonial oppressor and within the context of the times the enemy, but at the same time she feels guilty of her attraction towards him.
There's certainly lots to talk about! I'll come back later with a wider appraisal of the film.

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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Belle Lettre » 26 Mar 2009, 02:46

Very good points.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Snarfyguy » 26 Mar 2009, 04:56

Dr Modernist wrote: We know the father was a colonel in the army, although it's not stated explicitly, I think we can assume he would have served time in Algeria suppressing the independent movement.

It is explicitly stated that her father died in Algeria, and him having been a military man I think we're meant to consider him an oppressive, colonizing force.

When I saw this 20 years ago I felt extremely negative about it, but now I can see it as a more nuanced work. Still I have mixed feelings about it, particularly as to what the point of it is.

More later.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Sneelock » 26 Mar 2009, 05:26

I've always loved it. I haven't watched it recently but I think Bertolucci and Brando are totally cooking with gas on that one. when I saw it I expected it to be naughty. what really surprised me was the predicament this guy puts himself in.

it's sort of a sick joke the way I see it - a "gift of the magi" sort of thing. he does everything he can to drive that lady away and then he falls in love with her. :lol:

there's a scene towards the end where the camera seems to fly up a staircase.

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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby The Modernist » 26 Mar 2009, 17:14

Snarfyguy wrote:
Dr Modernist wrote: We know the father was a colonel in the army, although it's not stated explicitly, I think we can assume he would have served time in Algeria suppressing the independent movement.

It is explicitly stated that her father died in Algeria, and him having been a military man I think we're meant to consider him an oppressive, colonizing force.



Thanks, I must have missed that. Makes sense.

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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Snarfyguy » 27 Mar 2009, 19:30

I saw this around 20 years ago and I didn't like it at all.

Back then I felt prudish, but what I think now is that it's a powerfully provocative movie and I was duly provoked. The scenes in the apartment, where the couple are defining their relationship, are kind of scary because Brando is so intense and grim. In my memory, the guy was just an asshole, but what's really happening is that he's confronting some big issues and confrontations tend to be messy.

He's still kind of an asshole, and I wonder how much of himself Brando was putting into the role.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 29 Mar 2009, 15:21

Don't agree one bit Martha, but good post anyhow.

You could make the same basic argument about discussion of any work of art. Talking about any film won't change it, and maybe everything outside of the actual work is bullshit. But we can always illuminate different aspects of a film by talking about it. We can bring up questions that cause us to consider it a different way - as you yourself do by asking questions whether both and Rose and Paul's deaths were as simple as we commonly accept them to be. In doing so, you undercut your own argument - and I'm glad you did because it is a fascinating question to ponder.
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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby The Modernist » 29 Mar 2009, 21:58

I thought I should add more to this thread having watched it four or five days ago.
With this particular viewing (I've seen it quite a few times previously, although not for many years) I found myself alternatively riveted and bored by it. It does seem almost like a Theatre of Cruelty experiment in putting the audience through the ringer. In that sense we are a bit like Schneider, watching passively this man who is by turns charming, repulsive, boorish and magnetic. The whole thing does hang on Brando's performance almost to the film's detriment I think.
Certainly for what is essentially a two hander, Schneider's character comes across as a bit of an empty vessel lacking emotional depth, even though she is given a lot of narrative screentime. This means that Paul or Brando, and the difference between the two is certainly not clear, carry the film. What I found interesting about Paul was he seemed to be having this dual battle between taking control and relenquishing control. He seemed to want to control Jeanne, perhaps in the way that he failed to control his wife, but maintain some illusion she was doing all this out of her own freewill thereby distancing himself emotionally from his own actions.
It's a complex characterisation, and not in a way entirely intended by Bertolucci I don't think. By which I mean you have the Paul intended by the script, and then you have Brando bringing his own motivations and demons to the role so he ends up both a confused and confusing character.
It is a very powerful film. It is not always coherent and I'm not sure how I feel about it ultimately, but it is a brave film; an attempt to break down cinema to a raw, primal cry of pain.

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Re: Film Club - Last Tango in Paris

Postby Nikki Gradual » 06 Apr 2009, 15:09

Sorry, I just can't get on with this movie at all. I sat through it and went through at least a couple of emotions - from unamused to angry - which is rather more than the cast did. It doesn't seem to matter how often I try and watch it, it always comes out as a dreadfully pretentious pile of twaddle: a plotless piece of badly acted lazy soft porn that gorges itself on the diminishing reputation of a washed-up great. In terms of weighing up its artistic merit and cynical "name" exploitation it brings to mind Ed Wood digging up Bela Lugosi or Orson Welles doing Sandeman's port adverts.
Just my opinion. At least I sat through it before deciding not to change it from last time.
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