A young Parisian woman begins a sordid affair with a middled-aged American businessman whom lays out ground rules that their clandestine relationship will be based only on sex.
Bernardo Bertolucci's 'Last Tango in Paris' is an "adult" film in the proper sense of that phrase. Its frank sexuality and raw emotions are still bracing all these years later. In between those lovingly illustrated history lessons that he may be more identified with ('1900', 'The Last Emperor', 'Little Buddha'), Bertolucci has often liked to explore the interaction of art and eroticism – but certainly not in some juvenile skin flick sort of way. Rather, his films treat erotic content with a degree of seriousness, as something that can have meaning beyond mere titillation.
'Last Tango' establishes this dynamic right away. The opening credits are played next to (not on top of, mind you, but respectfully displayed beside the unobstructed works) two paintings by Francis Bacon that will inform both the visual language and general tone of the film. The paintings are "The Double Portrait of Lucien Freud & Frank Auerbach" and "Study for Portrait (Isabel Rawsthorne)." Both depict distorted, haunted figures lounging in bare rooms. These are our characters and our setting. Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro go to great lengths to emulate Bacon's use of color and texture in the movie's photography.
The first line of dialogue out of star Marlon Brando's mouth is, "Fucking god!" – a blunt juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Brando plays an aging American named Paul. We know little about him, except that he's obviously a wreck. We're told at one point (truthfully?) that: "Do you know that he was a boxer? So? It didn't work out, so he became an actor, bongo player, revolutionary in South America, journalist in Japan. One day, he lands in Tahiti, hangs around, learns French." Essentially, he's Marlon Brando. We also know that his wife Rosa killed herself with his straight razor. She left no note, no explanation. There's some doubt that the circumstances of her death could have really been suicide. Crazed with grief (or guilt), Paul wanders the streets of Paris.
Our other character in this pas de deux is Jeanne, a young French girl. (Actress Maria Schneider was 19 or 20 when the film was made.) She's a figure of ripening sexuality and emotional honesty. She first encounters Paul on the street, then in a phone booth, but pays him little mind. She finds him again in a dilapidated apartment she's looking to rent. Is he there also to rent (he has a home, but one that reminds him of his dead wife), or did he follow Jeanne there? The seduction is fast, primal, borderline rape. Jeanne, almost inexplicably, doesn't resist. Shouldn't she? The scene is all the more shocking because this isn't just some ugly American assaulting a young girl. It's cinema icon Marlon Brando doing it. Perhaps that's why she acquiesces.
Jeanne has seemingly no reason to be drawn to Paul, but is anyway. Later, we're introduced to her egotistical fiancé, an aspiring filmmaker trailed by a crew of cronies who film any- and everything he does, as if for some prototype Reality show. He treats Jeanne more as a prop than as the love of his life. She is clearly not fulfilled in this relationship.
Paul rents the apartment as their sanctuary from reality. They talk and fuck, and talk and fuck, not necessarily in that order. The dialogue is crudely honest, even when it's dishonest. He doesn't want to know anything about Jeanne, not even her name. Whereas her fiancé is totally obsessed with her past (his film character needs backstory), Paul wants to cut through all that bullshit. The past no longer exists. Only the moment they're in matters. Yet he also digresses on a long-winded reminiscence about his own past, and then immediately casts doubt that he may have made it all up on the spot.
At this stage of his career, Brando is aging, and his character is meant to be a mess, but he's still virile. It's plausible that a young girl would be attracted to him. This is just before he ballooned in weight and stopped caring about acting. His performance here is largely improvised. It's raw, even frightening at times, as if we're peering into the abyss of his soul and finding some very dark things there. For her part, Schneider is fearless in exploring and using her sexuality. There's a lot of nudity in this movie. She doesn't withhold anything, whether her body or her character's own inner turmoil and confusion. It's all out there on display. The film has some searing emotions and goes to some dark places.
As implied by the title, the relationship between these characters is a dance – push then pull, love then hate. They continually pivot and circle around one another. This is also reflected in Bertolucci's direction. He choreographs scenes as a play of shadow and light, painterly colors, and seductive camera movements that dance with the environment and the actors.
'Last Tango in Paris' was greeted with great controversy upon its release in 1972. Some critics decried it as a sexist male rape fantasy. Others – notably Pauline Kael, whose review was later described by Roger Ebert (also an admirer of the movie) as "the most famous movie review ever published" – proclaimed it a masterpiece. Are these two things mutually exclusive? Should they be? The film will likely still inspire that same debate today. If that's not the mark of a lasting work of art, nothing is.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
MGM Home Entertainment (via distributor 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) has released 'Last Tango in Paris' on Blu-ray as a very basic, no-frills catalog edition. The disc has next-to-no bonus features, and even lacks a main menu. It launches straight to movie playback upon loading. However, the disc is Java-enabled for no particular reason – seemingly just to prevent you from using the Blu-ray player's "resume play" function. (Seriously, the Java programming on the disc serves no purpose at all.)
The Blu-ray also has a very annoying glitch regarding the default subtitles, which I'll get to in the Audio section below.
Just in case the word "Paris" in the movie's title weren't enough to let you know that the film is set in… well, in Paris… the studio has Photoshopped an image of the Eiffel Tower (which never appears in the film) onto the cover art. Beside this is text describing the movie as "Bernardo Bertolucci's Landmark Film." Eiffel Tower… Landmark… Get it?
The Blu-ray contains only the 129-minute, NC-17 rated "Uncut Version" of the movie, not the R-rated version that was trimmed of two minutes from the notorious butter scene.
The 'Last Tango in Paris' Blu-ray is presented in the movie's original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. This suggests to me that cinematographer Vittorio Storaro had no hand in the film-to-video transfer, or else he would likely have retroactively cropped the photography to his misguided 2.0:1 "Univisium" preference. Storaro's lack of involvement is perhaps both a good and bad thing. I'm going to side more with "good" in this case.
MGM's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks like a straightforward scan of the film elements. It has neither any remarkable restoration work, nor any excessive digital tampering. There's a big hair in the frame in one early scene, but dirt and age-related wear are otherwise kept in check. The image seems a little dim on the whole. Sharpness and detail are pretty good, though not exceptional. (At least one scene in the movie has some blatant focus issues in the photography, which can't be held against the disc transfer.) Film grain is visible in most scenes, heavier in some than others. The studio has fortunately not tried to wipe it away with any apparent Digital Noise Reduction.
Storaro has a remarkable eye for colors, and they're very nicely rendered here (though I bet he would have boosted them a little anyway). I feel like there's probably enough potential in the source for a more involved restoration effort (perhaps a higher-resolution scan?) to eke out a little more detail and vibrancy from this photography, but this is a nice, film-like and satisfying transfer overall.
The movie's original monaural sound mix is encoded on disc in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono format. The studio has made no attempt to remix it into stereo or surround. That's fine by me. However, lossless encoding does little improve the dated fidelity of the recording.
The soundtrack makes some interesting use of silence and subtle sound effects, which come across pretty well. Dialogue is clear and discernable, though not especially crisp. The musical score is likewise clean, but a little too loud and strident. The movie has countless scenes where quiet whispered dialogue is immediately followed by blaring music. These transitions are often abrupt and a little uncomfortable. Still, the disc's audio quality is perfectly acceptable for a movie of this age.
The film has just about an even mix of English and French dialogue. The French passages are intended to be accompanied by English subtitles in this market. (At least, I'd certainly hope so.) You can watch the movie this way, but only if you go into the disc's setup menu and manually select "None" under the Subtitle options. "None" will give you subtitles for French dialogue, and turn them off during English dialogue, as you'd expect. Otherwise, the movie defaults to playing with no subtitles at all, which becomes extremely problematic for non-French speakers very quickly.
Despite the film's reputation and acclaim, 'Last Tango' has never been graced with any substantial supplemental content on home video. The Blu-ray unfortunately continues that tradition.
Almost four decades later, 'Last Tango in Paris' endures as an emotionally searing classic. The film still has the power to shock, arouse, and inspire intelligent discussion. MGM's Blu-ray release is a fairly straightforward affair without any special bells or whistles. The video transfer looks pretty good, and the audio is adequate given the age and origins of the movie. The lack of bonus features is a disappointment, but the movie has never fared better in that regard in the past either. The disc merits a solid recommendation.