Heat and lust

Heat and lust

Different Strokes

Heat and lust

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci was 31 when he made Last Tango in Paris (1972), which became one of the most controversial movies of the 20th century. The 125-minute film starred Marlon Brando as Paul, a 45-year-old lonely, tormented, middle-aged American widower in Paris, and Maria Schneider as Jeanne, a young Parisian woman.

Much of the action takes place in a crappy apartment in Paris where the protagonists are involved in a passionate, sordid and eventually tragic love affair. Premiered on the closing night of the New York Film Festival in October 1972, Last Tango shocked the audience with its high voltage erotic theme and sexually explicit scenes.

As a matter of fact, thanks to its pre-release reputation, the print of the film had to be escorted to the venue of the Festival by armed guards. While many in the audience felt outraged, there were some others who considered the film to be a significant and shockingly original work with raw sensuality and brutal irony.

“October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 — the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed — in music history,” wrote Pauline Kael in an elaborate (and oft-quoted) review in the New Yorker magazine.

“There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism… This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made… Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.”

Bacon inspired
Last Tango in Paris opens with two dramatic and typically disturbing paintings of Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) even as the credits roll on. The first one is ‘Portrait of Lucian Freud’ (showing a man lying on a red couch on green floor) and the second, ‘Study for Portrait (Isabel Rawsthorne)’ which has a woman seated on a chair.

Both the works featuring tortured figures and evoking feelings of existential despair were painted in 1964 by Bacon, arguably one of the greatest painters of the 20th century.
Before the actual shooting began in Paris, Bertolucci and Brando happened to see an exhibition of Bacon’s paintings at the Grand Palais and were overwhelmed by the images. It is said that Bertolucci decided to base the entire conception of the film on Bacon’s work, and mould his principal character on the lines of those tortured paintings. “He is like one of those Bacon figures who show on their faces all that is happening in their guts — he has the same devastated plasticity.”

The film is aided by some brilliant camerawork by Vittorio Storaro who adopted a range of Bacon’s throbbing colours — red, orange, yellow and pink. Soulful music by Gato Barbieri also helped enhance the intensity of imagery and sequences of the film. 

With some power-packed performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), On the Waterfront (1954) and Sayonara (1957) behind him, Brando was already a celebrity when Last Tango was being made. He had finished shooting for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (for which he later won the Academy Award but refused to accept it). His role as Paul in Last Tango was well complemented by 20-year-old French actress Schneider who brought in a rare freshness and naivety to her character.

International outcry
Thanks its seemingly offensive content and treatment, the film caused an international outcry. While it got an X rating in the US and the UK, it was banned by many countries. In Italy, the courts declared the film “obscene, indecent, and catering to the lowest instincts of the libido”; Brando, Bertolucci and producer Antonio Grimaldi were sentenced by the government to three months of prison (suspended) with conditions. Bertolucci’s right to vote in political elections too was suspended.

In a later interview, Bertolucci said: “I could swear that when I shot Last Tango with this frontal nudity, I never thought that I was doing something provocative. I thought what was provocative in the film was the despair in the character of Brando. That was the real thing I wanted to talk about.”

Brando did not speak to the director for years after the movie, and refused to take his calls on the phone. He revealed in his autobiography how Last Tango had left me depleted and exhausted. “Some of the pain I was experiencing was my very own.

Thereafter I decided to make my living in a way that was less devastating emotionally.”
Schneider too was not forgiving of Bertolucci. “He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me,” she said. “I felt humiliated, and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. People have identified with a character that was not me.”

She however thought Brando was wonderful to work with, and remained friends with him until his death. She detested the fame which Last Tango brought her. “I started using drugs when I became famous. I did not like the celebrity, and especially the image full of innuendo that people had of me after Last Tango.” She also revealed that she was paid a piddly 5,000 dollars for her role, while the film went on to make millions.

Brando died in July 2004, aged 80, while Schneider passed away in February this year of cancer, aged 58. Bertolucci who went on to make films like The Last Emperor (1987), Little Buddha (1993) and The Dreamers (2003) is crippled by back problems  and currently confined to a wheelchair.

Early this year, he received the Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes film festival. His career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in January this year (with the 15 features, three documentaries, one short, and a few films made by others about him) was a comprehensive tribute to the 69-year-old director who was 21 and a second year university student when he made his first film, The Grim Reaper.

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