Flophouse owner Paul (Marlon Brando) stands under a raised railway line in Paris and swears at the top of his voice as the train goes overhead, then continues his walk. A young woman, Jeanne (Maria Schneider) passes him and gives him a concerned glance, then walks on, but he ends up going in the same direction as she is until they reach an apartment block in Passy. Jeanne has trouble getting the keys to her new place from the landlady, but once she does she finds that Paul is already in there, and wonders what his motives are. They exchange a few words, not really communicating, and then suddenly they are having sex...
So begins one of the most controversial films of all time, which back in the early seventies was also possibly the most famous film of the era - or perhaps notorious would be a better description. It was the sexually explicit scenes and language which triggered that reaction, and director Bernardo Betolucci's work found itself widely banned or at least censored - he was even prosecuted in his native Italy for creating an obscenity, and was legally punished as a result. Watching it now, after all the films it paved the way for, you may wonder what the fuss was about, and much of the discussion on Last Tango in Paris is less about its racy scenes and more about whether it is incredibly boring or not.
Love it or loathe it, for decades this was the movie that most people thought of when the subject of European art film came up, as it fit the bill in so many ways. Pretentious, pushing the envelope of what was acceptable on the big screen, impenetrable to many, and with grand, actorly performances that were the height of self-indulgence in the view of quite a few who caught it, here was the quintessential work of its type. The fact that it was Brando starring, one of the most divisive thespians of the twentieth century, only added to the publicity, being in some eyes the equivalent of a major celebrity appearing in a pornographic movie even though there was no hardcore element in the whole of the running time.
It did him no harm in the long run, as it changed no one's mind one way or the other, simply confirmed whatever you already thought about his style, but for his co-star Schneider, it was both the best thing that had happened to her career, and the worst thing. She never recovered from being in Last Tango, suffering crippling embarrassment and eventual mental breakdown for her newfound and lasting fame, and all because of one scene. As the film's main plot revolves around Paul and Jeanne remaining anonymous as they conduct their affair, Paul feels he can get away with all sorts with her, and so the sodomy sequence with its ominous line "Go get the butter" plays out in circumstances that would be absurd if Schneider were not visibly upset about the whole thing.
Nevertheless, ever since then she was associated with it, and laboured under that with people insulting her in the street at the time, and suffering snidey references to a certain dairy product forever after. Actually, this part overshadowed the more emotional side of the story, as Jeanne is working out her feelings with filmmaker fiancé Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who Bertolucci had the cheek to depict as a pretentious New Wave director, with the scene in the Metro where she accuses him of raping her with his film (of which she is the reluctant star) uncomfortably close to Schneider's real life regard of both Bertolucci and Brando. Perhaps she would have far preferred to be remembered for being the woman who made permed hair popular for the next ten years instead of the attention she otherwise had to bear.
As for her co-star, who at times looks less like the lead character thanks to the film's obvious enchantment with Schneider, Paul is shellshocked by the recent, and messy, suicide of his wife. This leads to what by all rights should have been the most celebrated scene, where Brando improvised his character's grief over the dead body of the wife, a rare moment when he seems sincere and not suppressing the smirk that plays over his face during the rest of the drama. No matter that Schneider was underrated for her portrait of a confused young woman the film barely understands, Brando's formidable charisma was not to be undervalued, even if he was well into his phase of denigrating his talents. So much so that he claimed not only did he not know what this was about, but neither did Bertolucci; aside from the obvious, it was the usual clichés of a doomed relationship made modern by its giddiness of the new permissiveness. Silly, not as affecting as it thinks it is, with long stretches of restlessness, Last Tango nevertheless had some rough spark that kept it in the memory. Music by Gato Barbieri, heavy on the saxophone.