If you notice a theme here over the next 10 days, you’re both perceptive and right. I’m off to Paris and to celebrate, I’ll be posting – guess what? – reviews of movies set in Paris! Mais oui!
I must be in a weird mood, and I’m trying not to read into the fact that the first Paris movie I thought was none other than the craziest of crazies: Last Tango in Paris. If you’ve seen it, you can’t forget it. Marlon Brando plays Paul, a man mourning his wife’s suicide. He meets a young woman, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), when they both view the same apartment with intention to rent. They begin fucking. It was a “no strings attached” relationship before those words really existed. So stringless in fact that Paul insists they share absolutely no personal information, not even first names. The affair continues, graphically, for quite some time, until one day Jeanne shows up to find the apartment empty and Paul gone, without a word of goodbye.
But the story doesn’t end there! They meet again, on the street, and this time Paul, in his grief, spills his story, but Jeanne finds that this loss of anonymity is not exactly to her liking, disillusioning in fact.
Director Bernardo Bertolucci was inspired by his own sexual fantasies to make this film. He opens it with two paintings by Francis Bacon, which he visited frequently in real life at the Grand Palais Royal. The film’s palette draws heavily from the colours in these paintings, which reminded Bertolucci of Paris in the winter. He had lofty ambitions for the film, inspired by great art, but what he turned out was instead akin more to pornography?
Why? Because both stars felt “violated and raped” by the process. Maria Schneider, young and naive at the time of filming, felt manipulated into filming some of the more graphic scenes, including one in which Jeanne is sodomized (butter being the infamous lubricant of choice) but the “real tears” are Maria’s, who felt humiliated. Her shock and revulsion make it impossible not to feel guilty by association. Brando was so incensed that he refused to speak to Bertolucci for 15 years after filming wrapped.
Opening in 1972, of course there was great controversy. People in Paris faced weeks of lineups since foreigners from neighbouring countries with greater censorship laws flocked to see it where they could. In New Jersey, protestors called “Pervert!” to those who dared to see it, and the viewing prompted housewives to apparently “vomit in disgust.”
Nevertheless, the film was undeniably ground-breaking and free, and 40 years later, we’re still talking about it.