Picking this up after another long break, this is the ninth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Last Tango in Paris:
Exploitation films had been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without passion or emotional violence. Then, in this film, Bernardo Bertolucci used sex to express the characters’ drives. Marlon Brando, as the aging American, Paul, is working out his aggression on the young bourgeois French girl, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and the physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything that audiences had come to expect at the movies that the film created a sensation. It’s a bold and imaginative work—a great work. When Brando improvises within Bertolucci’s structure, his full art is realized; his performance is intuitive, rapt, princely. Working with Brando, Bertolucci achieves realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen.
In her full review, Kael famously compared the film to the first performance of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, which was a breakthrough in classical music and, legend says, inspired riots in its debut. There is no way for any movie to live up to such accolades, and anyone watching Last Tango today might be surprised that the famous critic was so overwhelmed by the film. Roger Ebert wrote, in 1995:
Watching Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" 23 years after it was first released is like revisiting the house where you used to live, and did wild things you don't do anymore. Wandering through the empty rooms, which are smaller than you remember them, you recall a time when you felt the whole world was right there in your reach, and all you had to do was take it.
This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened.... It was not the beginning of something new, but the triumph of something old -- the "art film," which was soon to be replaced by the complete victory of mass-marketed "event films." The shocking sexual energy of "Last Tango in Paris" and the daring of Marlon Brando and the unknown Maria Schneider did not lead to an adult art cinema. The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last. Hollywood made a quick U-turn into movies about teenagers, technology, action heroes and special effects.
Make no mistake ... at the time, Last Tango in Paris was shocking. It was banned in some countries and censored in others. (Oddly, the version I watched this time, on HBO, was listed as NC-17 but the infamous butter scene was toned down by sticking a lamp over their midsections so we couldn't see exactly what was going on.)
The film is beautiful ... the cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, worked many times with Bertolucci, and his camera movement can be smoothly ecstatic even when the scenes do not involve sex.
The IMDB tells us that "Marlon Brando later admitted in his autobiography 'Songs My Mother Taught Me' that after making this film, he vowed to never again become so vulnerable for a role." Once you've seen his performance, you know what he meant. You will often read that someone is so good, they don't even seem to be acting. But that's not what Brando does here. We know he's acting, but he submerges himself so efficiently that we realize his acting is more real than someone else's non-acting. His Paul is merciless, with himself as well as with others, even with his wife, dead by suicide. He projects his self-hatred onto people. He is never what you'd call a "nice man", but we empathize with him because his pain is so deeply felt.
If only the whole movie was as good as Brando, it would be as good as Kael thought it was. Maria Schneider had many terrible things to say in later years about her experience making the film, and I see no reason not to believe her. What is most important as we watch is that her Jeanne is only there to provide Paul with something to work with. Bertolucci never fills out her character, and while she is fine in the movie, there isn't any real effort to make her better than fine.
Last Tango in Paris is not Bertolucci's best film ... it's been a very long time since I've seen it, but my memory is that The Conformist ranks at the top. Nor is it Brando's best, although it is close, and as his last great performance, it encompasses all of his past glories, which are imprinted in our minds. #371 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.