As far as erotic-obsession dramas go, we live in a dull margarine age, an era of low-cal olive spread. So it’s bracing to revisit that great shocker of yesteryear, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris from 1972. Nobody makes sex films like this any more, with the exception of France’s Catherine Breillat, who actually has a minor acting role here. The fantastically earnest story is about Paul (Marlon Brando), a damaged, grieving widower who meets up with freewheeling hippie-chick Jeanne (a heartbreakingly vulnerable-looking Maria Schneider) to cauterise his spiritual agony with regular anonymous sex in a Paris apartment. These sessions skiff out to the wilder shores of despair and degradation, and include the legendary butter-assisted sodomy; Brando later returns the compliment by allowing Schneider to do the same thing to him with two fingers, sans Kerrygold, an act rendered even more piquant by his later revelation that he has “a prostate like an Idaho potato”.
What a bizarre film it is, capable of delivering some shocks, certainly, but possessing not power exactly, but a fascinating, unevolved clumsiness. Brando confronts the audience like a bull behind the china shop counter, and his extraordinary, old-fashioned charisma is what keeps you watching. That face is hyperreal in its leonine handsomeness. And you don’t see it clearly at first. Like Don Corleone receiving petitioners in his inner sanctum or Colonel Kurtz in his cave, this is one of Brando’s crepuscular roles, a brooding creature of the shadows, from which the first recognisable thing is the nasal-strangulation of the voice. Later he morphs into Cagney, a premonition of his final top-of-the-world moment in Maria’s apartment, and he unleashes a hilarious hammy English accent, whose cadences give him Olivier’s camp self-possession.
The sex is mostly fully clothed, although Maria gets entirely naked for a bathing scene, displaying some old-school luxuriant pubic hair; and Brando gets his great, flabby 40-something bum out for the final scene in the tango bar when he “moons” an outraged proprietress who is attempting to throw him out. Thankfully, this is the nearest thing to nudity he has. The sodomy scene, incidentally, gives us a candid “pelvic thrusting” shot of the sort that Kirby Dick, in his excellent 2006 documentary about movie censorship, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, tells us that the Motion Picture Association of America now considers absolutely beyond the pale, clothed or not.
Despite the legend that has grown up around the film, it is not simply about claustrophobic shagging in the one flat. Occasionally, they leave their Alex Comfort zone, and this is where the movie picks up dramatic speed. Schneider comes from a well-to-do family; her father was an army officer in Algeria in the 1950s. She has a callow, irritating film-maker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Léaud) – whose callow irritatingness unfortunately seeps into movie’s texture a bit. He intends to make a drama-documentary about their lives together, perpetually showing up with a camera-crew in tow.
Paul turns out to have run a low-price hotel with his late wife, who committed suicide, for reasons that remain unclear, after an affair with one of the guests. Artfully, Bertolucci allows us to suspect that Paul may have actually murdered his wife, at which point the movie assumes the air of an impossibly explicit Hitchcock thriller, perhaps with a screenplay by Patrick Hamilton. Brando has a tremendous scene with Massimo Girotti, who plays Marcel, his wife’s lover, with whom she appeared to have enjoyed gently uxorious evenings in matching dressing gowns. Paul thoughtfully tries on one of the dressing gowns, and the two rival males sit on Marcel’s bed, in these same gowns: an unexpectedly sweet, sad scene. The most extraordinary moment comes when Paul’s dead wife is shown bizarrely lying in state in one of the hotel rooms while he rants and raves over her corpse. An almost Buñuelian nightmare. With lines like “put your fingers up the ass of death until you feel the womb of fear”, this movie is easily mocked. It probably deserves it. But in its raw, artless, innocently self-important way it packs a punch. You’ll know when you’ve been tango’d.