A new print of “Last Tango in Paris” was screened at the Bertolucci Series at the Castro Theater in San Francisco Oct 18, sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute and Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, Rome. The film was introduced as a film that was built entirely around Marlon Brando but screen space is equally occupied by Maria Schneider who because of her youth and the role she is placed in is often glossed over or objectified.
Many of the lines that Brando recites in the film as Paul bring laughter from men in the audience, never women: the dead rat, the references to farm animals and crude comments to Jeanne (Maria Schneider). The English speaking lines are Bertolucci’s; the French are Agnès Varda’s. The film is introduced with garish drawings by Francis Bacon of the male and female body in contorted positions. It may seem like this is how Bertolucci frames his characters but that is only the surface of his film and it is slickly covered by the visually stunning cinematography of Vittorio Storaro with a lot of excellent shots of exterior and interior spaces, skillfully edited by Franco Arcalli and Roberto Perpignani.
Jeanne tells Paul early on in their clandestine sexual encounters in a run down vacated apartment that he doesn’t like women – that he doesn’t listen to women. His wife Rose commits suicide and lead a secret life with a patron in the hotel she owned where she and Paul lived. One day she scratches a painting off the wall of her lover’s room, ripping her fingernails. This incident is supposed to be a clue to her suicide, the reasons for it being a mystery.
An employee at the hotel washes the blood from the bathtub after the incident, a young woman like Jeanne, and she keeps the water running, which irritates Paul. She explains how the cops came and asked questions about Paul and gathered evidence from the crime scene, but they were satisfied that it was a suicide death, at least not murder. But was it? Was it her lover upstairs that killed her that wears the same bathrobe as Paul?
This scene foreshadows the final scene in the film after Jeanne shoots Paul. She recites her alibi several times for the future police report: “I didn’t know who he was, he was going to rape me”. In fact in the film, Jeanne is raped and this scene in particular was one that Bertolucci and Brando decided on and did not consult Schneider. In retrospect, she said that she could have sued Bertolucci but didn’t know her rights at the time (Interview with Maria Schneider for Movie Magazine International). There are a couple of other scenes in which she feels humiliated on screen. She never was filmed naked in a film after “Last Tango”. For years she made it known that she disliked Bertolucci. “I think Bertolucci is over-rated”, she said in interviews, “and he never really made anything after ‘Last Tango’ that had the same impact.”
There is no comparison between “Last Tango” and “Last Emperor” but “Last Tango” could have been a good film without the horrible script. Maria mentioned that she found the original script in Italy and it was about a middle aged man and a young boy. Schneider is made to look much older than 20 in the film with lots of face and eye make up, and a long curly red wig. She has a slender body, like a young boy. The lines in the film are written to evoke compassion for Paul since he was abused by his father and his wife lied to him, and he takes it all out on Jeanne. It is also clear that his socio-economic situation is lower then hers, which causes friction. Critiques of the film concentrate on sex scenes which have little to do with sex but power games.
This scenario in many ways is a study of fascism and fits with the theories of Eric Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom” that explores the psychosocial character of Germans who lived under National Socialism in the Second World War. One of Fromm’s key points is how the sadist needs the masochist more than the masochist needs the sadist. Spectators are surprised that Jeanne dumps Paul and shoots him in the end; he tells her his name and he wants to live with her and he loves her. His sudden conversion from a sadistic lover to a needy man can be understood in Fromm’s analysis. But this occurs only after Jeanne’s repeated attempts to get away from him, telling him it is over. It is perhaps the fickleness of a young girl, a young girl in love with a man who brutalizes her sexually and through abusive language. The film was banned in many countries because of this including Italy where Bertolucci was taken to court.
Some of the music in the soundtrack is reminiscent of the chase scenes of Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), especially when the witch’s coven drugs her so that she will have sex with Satan (scored by the Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda). Other times the music is heavily orchestrated (Gato Barbieri) and romantic. It is music that now evokes empathy for the short life of Maria Schneider who died in 2011. She did a great job in this film as an emerging actress. She improvises with Brando and holds her own; she does the same with French veteran Jean-Pierre Léaud. Her range of emotions is skilled and yet in critiques of this film, she is eclipsed by Brando and her efforts glossed over. She is “Brando’s lover” in “Last Tango”, but Brando is never Schneider’s lover. Off screen, like Brigitte Bardot and Jodie Foster (“Taxi Driver”), she was held accountable to the image that was created for her, in this case for having the kind of sex with Brando that he crudely suggests. In a way the audience knowingly participates in the fascist torture of Jeanne. “Why don’t you listen to me”, she asks Paul at one point who is often distracted and can only think of things to do sexually with her. She asks Paul if he thinks she is a whore ( she mispronounces it as “wore”) and he tells her that she is not, “just a young girl trying to get by in life”. For her, sexuality is a way of breaking from her bourgeois upbringing but she soon discovers this encounter gets out of control.
Some mention to other parts of the film reveal how layered it is but given the love story they serve only as exoticized elements. A woman of color is the concierge of the apartment building in Passy near Pont de Bir-Hakeim. It is the house of the the fictitious 1 rue Jules Verne apartment in the 15e and 16e where Paul and Jeanne meet. There are also many women and men of color in Paul’s hotel, where sex workers bring their clients, an arrangement that they had with Rose, unbeknownst to Paul. An elderly woman brings a client that takes off when he sees Paul. The woman implores Paul to find him. He defends himself as a married man to get off the hook and turns his reversible coat inside out outside a porn theater. Paul beats him up.
Other points concern Jeanne’s upbringing. Jeanne’s father was a racist colonel in the French army who dies in a battle in French occupied Algiers. Her mother is a racist who talks about what lousy servants colonized Africans make. As for the younger generation of the 70s, Jeanne wants to name her future child Fidel after Castro and Léaud suggests Rose after Rosa Luxembourg.
Rose’s mother insists on preparing her daughter for a wake in one of the hotel rooms. She is heavily made up, surrounded by flowers and dressed in white. Paul’s emotional scene with her in this room is convincing that he did love her, but it is clear that she did not. In this film someone seems to always elude the person that wants him or her. Tom (Léaud), Jeanne’s fiancé can only see her as an actress in his films and has a hard time separating fiction from reality. An extra on his crew is the young Catherine Breillat who later became a director of problematic narratives about women. Ironically when Paul leaves the apartment in Passy, he enters “the real world”, a world that Jeanne cannot accept, afraid of his cat and rat games when neither of them knew each other’s names or real backgrounds.
Maria Schneider’s interpretation of Jeanne’s joyful innocence in “Last Tango in Paris” and her sincereity of wanting to experience love and passion is the role that will forever be associated with her image. Schneider was an enthusiast of the cinema and loved arthouse and auteur directors. She went on to make 40 more films and wished that this had not been her first.