By Davis Rivera
Making canonical lists of important works is an activity that is necessary to parse the history of art in search of a concise collection of digestible accomplishments. Like editing a film or book, exclusion becomes key to unveiling the incomparable, autonomous forms which the artist was able to invent. What characterizes the filmography of Marlon Brando, however, is its inability to be whittled down. Rather than recommending his entire body of work, which should be viewed at some point, there must be an entry point and that lies within the 129 minutes of Bernardo Bertolucci‘s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris.
Last Tango in Paris broke new ground in what could be shown in mainstream cinemas and is essential viewing if one wants to understand what paved the way for the various filmmakers that used sexual obsession as their primary theme without fear of censorship limiting their audience. Without Last Tango in Paris, it is unlikely that Patrice Chéreau would have had the freedom to make Intimacy, producers certainly would have balked at making Liliana Cavani’s vastly less artistic exercise in sexual obsession The Night Porter, and one can imagine most of Catherine Breillat’s films suffering from a lack of support. For better or worse, filmgoers have Bertolucci’s masterpiece to thank for the stream of sexually charged titles that followed in its wake.
Masterpiece is a word that is thrown around a lot, but how else does one describe a film that Norman Mailer compared to the four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Indeed, in the aftermath of its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, the praise was so deafening it seemed every celebrated cultural figure in America was trying to one-up the other by thinking of ways of championing the film. Robert Altman declared, “How dare I make another movie?” And Pauline Kael, the highly influential film critic at The New Yorker, went so far as to compare its opening to May 29, 1913: the night Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du printemps’ was first performed.
Yet, over the past forty years, the film seems to have faded into obscurity and, during BFI’s once-a-decade poll to compile a list of history’s greatest films, it received a mere two votes. How does one explain the disappearance of a film so lauded upon its release? In short: the content. The film is a raw portrait of two people, a middle-aged American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young engaged Parisian woman (Maria Schneider), and their anonymous sexual relationship. The film was deemed so graphic that it was given an ‘X’ rating and was actively prosecuted by a citizen in Italy for, among other things, “obscene content […] presented with an obsessive self-indulgence catering to the lowest instinct of the libido.”
This description is highly unfair because, ultimately, the film is not pornographic at all and is, in fact, fairly tame not just by today’s standards but by the standards of many films being released in the early seventies as well. It is undoubtedly erotic and broke certain taboos but its eroticism is never crass due to the highly personal approach Bertolucci took when developing the film. Nearing the end of production on his previous film The Conformist, Bertolucci had an encounter with a woman and decided to use this event as the impetus for a film depicting the alternate life he wished he were living. While developing this idea, Bertolucci was reading a lot of French intellectual Georges Bataille’s work and nearly gave the film the much better but no less appropriate title Le Petite Morte.
As the years went on and praise for the film died down, the stars came out against both the film and Bertolucci in a very public display of regret and indignation. Brando claimed that he felt violated and refused to speak to Bertolucci for fifteen years. Schneider went even further and stated that the film ruined her life and considered Bertolucci no better than a gangster or pimp. These statements hurt the film’s reputation but did little to negatively affect what is shown on the screen. Last Tango in Paris remains the best portrayal of eroticism cinema is ever likely to see and proves a master class in how to successfully depict sex in cinema. Though Bertolucci never made another film nearly as perfect, he didn’t need to because he had already achieved greatness in a work of art that deserves to be ranked among the likes of Beethoven and Stravinsky.
Davis Rivera is a writer living in Philadelphia.
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