Friday, May 16, 2008

Movies: Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris)

I'm terribly anxious about where to start. This happens sometimes. And this is, after all, a rather anxiety-inducing film. Even if you consider yourself fairly "liberated" (as I do), this film will make you wriggle squeamishly. God forbid you've made the unwitting mistake of seeing it with your parent, or on a first date. But even if, like me, you've gone to the theater alone, watching these things happen on a screen in front of the public will cause you some anxiety. You may think better to rent it, and watch it alone, but you'll feel even more sordid for having done that, because there is an aura of pornography, an intimation of "peeping" through the keyhole, and an unignorable air of complicity in violence. Being solitary will magnify it.

The illicit makes us feel guilty, but that guilt is exciting. Our arousal is then complicated by another level of guilt. The audience enacts these wriggle-inducing visceralities alongside Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who retires daily to a filthy apartment where she has increasingly violent anonymous sex with a frowzy-but-animal American twice her age and thrice her weight (the never-so-disturbing Marlon Brando, as raw as always but now letting it all hang out). Bertolucci displays Schneider's breasts with typical European abandon, but also offers full-frontal female nudity as one of the least shocking items on the film's agenda. Perhaps you would like to see the girl masturbate when her lover shuns her, writhing face down on the mattress, grinding her hips against her hand. Perhaps you would like to see the man demand that she bring the butter, so that he can toss aside his baguette, shove her face down on the floor, and rape her, yes, anally, with that traditional farmhouse lubricant. Does that turn your stomach? And these are only words. Imagine it on the big screen, in a sordid French apartment building, with rust colored carpets and a bare mattress on the floor in the room's center, all the blinds drawn shut. Imagine a dead rat in the bed. So squeamish, we Americans are! I know. You feel sick. But titillated. And therefore even more sick.

Intercut with these grim, rust-colored scenes of filth are their perfect opposites; Jeanne, all this time, is engaged to Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) a reconstitution of Léaud's Godard roles as an excitable naïf with a video camera, who is making a film about Jeanne and his love for her. The walk around outdoors, in the sunlight, their every moment together conscripted by the camera and a crew of assorted clueless hipsters carrying audio/visual equipment. He takes her to the farmhouse where she grew up and she talks about her childhood. When she returns to the room and to her more beastly man, her storytelling about childhood becomes an interrogation, in which he coaxes from her stories about her adolescent illicit behavior with a male cousin. One day, out with Tom, and trying on a wedding dress, she runs back to the apartment in the rain to tell her lover that she will be getting married, and not seeing him anymore. Deaf to her protests, he picks her up, tosses her over his shoulder, and takes her to the bathroom, where he demands that she bathe. In the process of explaining to him that she's fallen in love "with a man," her description grows to describe not Tom, but this robust, déclassé American.

The film then winds down into its less titillating (and simultaneously, but not consequently, less interesting) conclusion, in which Jeanne's relationship with Brando steps out of the apartment and into the daylight; he tells her his name (Paul), about his wife (he's freshly widowed), and takes her to a funhouse of a dancehall, ordering whisky and champagne; he professes his love; drunk, they stumble across the dance floor, where buttoned-up dancers are performing a tango (that structured, cold, farcical representation of passion that equates not with Jeanne and Paul's relationship, nor with Jeanne and Tom's relationship, either); when they are forced off the dance floor, Paul pulls down his pants and shows the proper company his ass.

And then, the very end: all this time, Paul has inspired in Jeanne the always-intermingled passions of lust and fear. She repeatedly fights, but always succumbs. Now, she is done. She hurries away from him, but he follows her. He chases her through the streets of Paris, to her home, but his place (their place?) is not out in the sun, nor in the apartment she shares with her mother. He follows her in, and puts on a military hat, which had belonged to her (now dead, of course) father. She turns around and, holding her father's gun, shoots him dead.

It was, I'm certain, the right thing to do. A latter-day interview with Schneider suggests that the anal rape was not in the original script, but had instead been Brando's idea (butter and all). It was done in one take; the tears, she insists, had at that moment been real.

Squirm away.

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