The next post will be on or before Friday November 9th
LAST TANGO IN PARIS AND MISOGYNY
Did you know that the eminent movie star Marlon Brando (1924-2004) never memorised his lines, but always had cue cards scattered all over the film set? In the massively controversial 1972 Last Tango in Paris where he played Paul the bereaved American hotel owner, Brando even asked the director Bertolucci if he could have some of his lines written on co-star Maria Schneider’s naked backside, which Bertolucci stoutly refused. Schneider was only 19 when the film was made and Brando was 48, and principally because of the notorious anal rape scene in the film, Schneider (1952-2011) years later went public that it had ‘ruined her life’ and that Bertolucci (born 1941) was ‘a gangster and a pimp’. Likewise, Brando and the director fell out and didn’t speak to each other for 15 years after the film was made. The film was an Italian-French co-production and was duly prosecuted for obscenity in Italy, and the director and producer (Alberto Grimaldi) were given suspended prison sentences in 1976, and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. They were accused of ‘gratuitous pansexualism’ a phrase which sounds oddly innocuous and even a commendation to me. And just to summarise the international response, it was banned for 30 years inside the mass murderer Pinochet’s Chile and immediately unbanned in 1974 when the Fascist Portuguese government was overthrown. Censorious Mary Whitehouse of the UK Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association as you would imagine roundly hated it, and quite bizarrely puritanical Nova Scotia was the only state in Canada to proscribe it.
Paul (Marlon Brando) who is 45 in the film is seen wandering dazed through Paris in an immaculate camel hair coat, his French wife the hotel owner Rosa having just slashed her wrists and bled to death. A young woman Jeanne (Maria Schneider) who is a fashionably dressed 20-year-old actress with an ostentatious hat, walks hurriedly past him and stares bemused at his condition. A few hours later she is on her way to look at a flat, and by a fluke it has already been taken by Paul who had had to get out of his wife’s hotel to retain his sanity. The black concierge is confused about everything when Jeanne arrives, and because of a shift change doesn’t even know that Paul has taken the flat. She frightens the young actress by clinging onto her hand and cackling insanely after giving her the duplicate keys, a cameo that establishes the mood for what is to follow. Paul is there lying on his back in the semi dark inside the furnitureless flat when Jeanne chances upon him and is duly shocked. He is an extremely handsome American who was once a boxer and has led a vagabond life, ending up in Tahiti where learning French, he then transferred to Paris and married moneyed Rosa. His wife ran a kind of flophouse/ brothel hotel and it was there that the couple lived and where she committed her suicide. However, Rosa was far from faithful and had a long and undisguised affair with Marcel (played by Massimo Girotti, 1918-2003) who lived in a room directly above them, and where Rosa weirdly provided her lover with identical furnishings, fittings and everything else including personal gifts, that she had given to husband Paul. In a key scene Paul goes up to talk to Marcel to talk about their joint lover and the fastidious rival asks if he can keep on working as they talk. He makes an income snipping out newspaper articles for a press cutting agency, then pasting them into an album and Paul is suitably scornful of such an unmanly pastime.
The film works by switching back and forwards between the mordant and intense present which is Paul with Jeanne in the new flat, and the melancholy past which is Paul trying to make sense of Rosa’s tragedy and all that followed, mostly as witnessed in the flophouse hotel. Now in the bare apartment that Paul has taken, he and Jeanne are warily eyeing each other up. Friendly, attractive and very girlish looking, Jeanne wants to know his name, but he snarls at her and refuses all personal detail which he says pollutes and ruins everything and is quite unnecessary. This motif of a bare and spartan existential approach to life, familiar from the writings of Sartre and Camus, continues throughout the movie, and Jeanne is continually attracted and repelled by what can be both liberating yet infinitely bleak. Just as she is about to depart, now that the flat is no longer hers, Paul walks over, then grabs and embraces her roughly. Before long there is the famous copulatory scene where both of them are fully dressed, stood upright, and where Jeanne lifts her legs and clings onto his hips like an affectionate or possibly needy monkey. Parenthetically, if you are a connoisseur of famous cinematic sex scenes, you may be aware that it has only ever been outranked, or maybe I mean outflanked, by Jack Nicholson and Karen Black locked in coitus and furiously bouncing together across the floor where Karen is a kind of pogo stick and Jack the enthusiastic bouncer, the film in question being the excellent though sadly neglected Five Easy Pieces (1970).
After the coition, they roll apart still fully dressed and noisily gasping. However, Jeanne is in an additional turmoil, as she already has a fiancé Tom, a film maker played by veteran Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Leaud (born 1944). The ironic contrast of loquacious Tom and his relationship with Jeanne is, sad to say, the weakest thing in Last Tango, for Tom is a chirpily anarchic film maker who never stops talking as he films absolutely everything that is happening in his life, including meeting his fiancee off the train and embracing her tenderly on the platform. Belatedly Jeanne realises what she thought was spontaneous affection is just part of his never-ending film creations and she is suitably angry. Tom bats it off in boyish faux Surrealist mode (my art is all that matters!) but that is precisely the problem. To use Tom and his ingenuous and breezy iconoclasm as foil against passionate, contemptuous and desperate Paul was surely a serious artistic mistake on Bertolucci’s part. Tom who takes up a large part of the film, comes across as something lost deep in the Swinging Sixties, indeed as someone on the lines of one of the Beatles racing around unhilariously in one of their unwatchable cinematic capers.
Meanwhile the passion is growing between the sad American and the Frenchwoman less than half his age. It is true to say about half of their romantic alliance is presented comically and playfully, the other half bleakly, a la film noir, and sometimes with undisguised masculine violence. At one stage during comical foreplay, they pretend to be the Big Bad Wolf and Red Riding Hood where paradoxically Jeanne is the wolf. As she pokes around Paul’s body he says his powerful arms are all the better to squeeze a fart out of her, and later when she is exploring his pubic hair, it is all the better to host her genital crabs. In their quiet bedroom interludes, she tries to tell him about her colonial colonel of a father stationed in Algeria, but he shouts at her to shut up and says he wants to know nothing of her past, nor even know her name, and the bizarre fact is that by the end of the film neither has a clue what the other one is called. He also breaks his own rules by talking emotionally about his rural midwest childhood with parents both drunks, his mother lovable and poetic for all that, but the father a bully and a whore chaser. The first time aged 16 Paul dated a girl and took her to a baseball game, his Dad had ordered him to milk the cows at once, and so he drove her to the game with his feet stinking humiliatingly of cow shit. Young Jeanne is then bold enough to accuse him of breaking his own rules about absolute anonymity, and he laughs and shows signs that his stony petrifaction after Rosa’s death is starting to thaw.
But then the controversial rape scene takes place, and it is worrying to learn that though both the director and Brando knew what was going to happen, Maria Schneider aged 19 did not. Seemingly the 2 eminent and experienced males thought they would get a better performance out of her if she didn’t know she was to be mock-raped, which if true was an appalling decision. Paul without preamble asks Jeanne to throw him a pack of butter, who makes nothing of such a weird request and chucks it at him indifferently. Then, while she is idly and innocently lying on her belly on the bed, he violently tears her pants down and rubs some butter up her back passage. In a trice he is violently penetrating her and she is sobbing hysterically at what according to Schneider she had never been forewarned of. Of course, the rape was simulated not real, but according to Schneider her sobs and horror were genuine and she was wholly traumatised. During the rape Paul pins her shoulders down and orders her to repeat verbatim a litany of loathing for the Nuclear Family, and it is worth pointing out the historical context here. The film was made only one year after the publication of the anti-psychiatrist David Cooper’s The Death of the Family, a raging polemic which calls for the destruction of the nuclear pair bond as the core and oppressive template of Monolithic Capitalism. Cooper was the best known disciple of another anti-psychiatrist RD Laing who penned Sanity, Madness and the Family, and doubtless avowed Marxist Bertolucci aged around 30 had imbibed some of these uncompromising texts and decided to make a mouthpiece for them in his anti-hero Paul.
Despite her puzzling commitment to babbling Tom, Jeanne eventually admits she is in love with Paul in a teasing wordplay reversal, which confuses even shrewd and world wise Paul. She keeps iterating she loves him, she loves him, she loves this special man, and seemingly she means fiancé Tom, but no she shouts it is Paul before her who is the only man she loves. This is cue for the other famous sex scene where just as he gruffly commanded her to get the butter, Brando now orders Jeanne to get some nail scissors. He then instructs her to clip only the two middle forefingers and next, guess what, stuff them up his backside and bring him to orgasm. Now then, dear reader, anal masturbation between consenting couples is not completely unknown on this planet, unless you live in Arkansas where it very likely used to be a felony (as it definitely did in the case of premarital sex). But the rest of the erotic tableau that follows is in my view utterly revolting and phony and devil may care nonsense, not to say profoundly misogynistic. The middle-aged American commands the very young Frenchwoman while she masturbates his arsehole, that she must imagine she in turn is being sodomised by a pig, and that she will inhale the dying farts of the said pig, and that when the dying pig vomits, that she must eat the vomit and that all this splendid unfailing obedience is a tribute to him the presumably divine or more likely demonic Paul.
Paul groans, “Would you do all that for me? Would you do all that for me?”
Exultant and innocent Jeanne, “Yes. Yes I would! I would do all of that. And I would do even more!”
On your bike, Bernardo Bertolucci, who here is trying to be a cross between a 1920s Surrealist of 1000% shock value e.g. Dali or Breton or Ernst (all of them arguably half mad males, not one a female you might notice) and/or a Tantra adept from the far reaches of the borderlands of East Bengal, and believe me no Tantric follower would be so puerilely revolting. It is all so male and masculine and ludicrously misogynistic and infantilised, is it not? By which I mean, would cocksure Paul/ Marlon ever conceivably suffer himself to be sodomised by a pig, and then swallow its vomit all for the sake of teenage Jeanne/ Maria Schneider? Isn’t it because he is a leery middle aged self-aggrandising man, and she is a naive young kid, that he feels it OK to make her eat porcine puke should it come to the crunch, and when she has to prove her eternal fidelity to him the Supreme Deity in her life?
The only excuse for Bertolucci’s 4MF (Macho Man as Monster Masturbatory Fantasy) is that it immediately precedes what happens when Paul returns to the hotel he now owns, and where his dead wife’s body is laid out. She has been decorated with beautiful flowers and also given a great deal of camouflaging make up, presumably by her grieving mother, who Paul had previously screamed at when she demanded a church service and the ritual of Absolution (as a suicide) by a Catholic priest. Rosa was neither religious nor did she use make up, and when he first enters this funereal shrine, Paul starts to rage, rant and insult her, in almost identical terms to those demanding total perverse Obeisance/ Deification from Jeanne. He calls Rosa a fuck-pig, the venomous C word, and every filthy insult he can muster, and he tells her he hopes she rots in Hell (this from an aggressive atheist married to an atheist neither of who would have believed in The Other Place). At length he reaches a peak of deranged obscenity towards this treacherous woman who took the easy way out as far as he was concerned, and left him Paul stranded in this nightmare of a fallen world. Then, right enough the floodgates break, and he starts to sob and wail and thanks to Brando’s remarkable acting we realise that he really loved unfaithful Rosa after all, and that all that acidic bile preceded the declaration of his undying love.
After that, the singular dynamic between Paul and Jeanne switchbacks between her total adoration and an unconvincing resolve to leave him and marry Tom. Near the end of the film he chases her down the street, and as she insists it is finished, he puts to her a kind of Zen proposal that yes that is how things work, it finishes and then it starts again, something finishes and then begins again, the cosmic way of things. To divert her and to have his way, as by now he is patently in love with her, he leads Jeanne into an enormous ballroom which turns out to be hosting competitive tango, hence the title of the film. And for once we get some fine, artistic even farcical comedy for the tangoing couples as well as having men with Neanderthal haircuts complete with mile long sideburns, keep stopping dead like frozen mannikins and looking hilariously mad. Paul is in high spirits and orders champagne and then whisky for Jeanne who rapidly gets drunk. Jeanne persists in her rejection but eventually seems to succumb to her Deity, and is hoisted onto his back like a child and led onto the dance floor where the burlesque that follows is laugh out loud. First of all Brando lies on his back and kicks his feet like a baby, then ups and does a kind of crazy Daffy Duck stride with a mad protruding behind. The two of them then parody the other dancers, with wild and rigid flings like a fairground whiplash. Before long the toothy lady in charge of the comp who has a remarkable hat and a dress sense from about 1910, storms onto the floor only to be lifted high by Paul and swept around the room as impromptu partner. Tiring of that he drops her, and heading for the door with Jeanne drops his trousers, moons at her and invites her to kiss his backside (the backside if you think about it, is more or less the actual and symbolic and overwhelming star of this film).
What follows now is painful to behold, for as she speeds off down the street telling him it is all over, he races after her protesting his love and determined to have her. Jeanne is pursued all the way to her widowed mother’s home, and we are chilled as we see she goes to a certain drawer where earlier we saw the mother brandishing her late husband’s pistol (which her stiff and bourgeois Mum had no idea how to use) as token domestic protection. As Paul steps up to her and protests his tender love, the gun either by accident or design goes off, and he staggers outside onto the balcony and with barely a word but a look of infinitely poignant and heartrending acceptance he drops dead. Jeanne meanwhile still inside with the gun, is rehearsing her words to the police, that she didn’t even know his name (which was true) and that he had followed her inside and attempted to rape her (which in a very specific sense, he already had).
You can draw your own conclusions about this worrying and very flawed masterpiece, and should certainly watch it again if you haven’t seen it for 20 or 30 or 40 years or more. The film is beautifully tender and brilliant at times, puerilely and obnoxiously misogynistic and violent at others, wildly funny now and again, and throughout there is a haunting string score, and as added bonus we have Gato Barbieri’s raw and sexy sax at the start, and with the credits. There are also terrific Francis Bacon paintings as ornamented titles alongside the pungent howling sax and those are not to be sneezed at either.