The womb of fear: Revisiting "Last Tango in Paris"

I often like to say that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973) is one of my favorite movies, and every time I watch it I’m confronted with its almost overwhelming emotional power as well as its audacity, its crazy-making unevenness, and its willingness to court ridicule.  Last Tango is, without question, a flawed film: there are at least half a dozen clunky, badly written scenes (most of them featuring the insufferable character played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), and Maria Schneider’s perm never fails to bug me.  And yet Bertolucci pulls it off somehow, perhaps because he believes so sincerely in the tragic dimensions of the story of Paul and Jeanne that we come to believe in them, too.
I would argue that many of the negative responses to Last Tango over the years have arisen out of a misconception about what that story is.  From the moment of its release Last Tango has been mis-marketed as a sex movie, much in the same way that Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut would be sixteen years later.  As a publicity trick, it was successful; Last Tango was a box office hit.  But audiences looking for titillation were, and are, bound to be disappointed.  (Norman Mailer complained that Last Tango was “a fuck film without the fuck”—the equivalent of “a Western without the horses.”) 

Its sex scenes are key moments in the film, but for different reasons than those many have expected.  Ultimately, its story tells about the impossibility of separating sex from love (a decidedly old-fashioned idea), and about the impossibility of love triumphing over society’s constraints (an unabashedly Romantic one).  As Peter Bondanella writes, the film “ultimately argue[s] not for more eroticism in the movies but, paradoxically, for the more old-fashioned love and affection contained in the classic American cinema Bertolucci knew and loved as a child.”  That tradition of American cinema is represented by the presence of Brando, of course, who was never more heartbreaking than in the final half hour of this film, beginning with the gut-wrenching monologue delivered at the bier of his wife and ending with that final, beautiful close-up of his face looking out over the Paris skyline just before the moment of his death.    

Last Tango is, in other words, a psychodrama about using sex to plumb the depths of oneself, to confront ugliness and pain, and, finally, to confront death—as Paul says, to go “right up into the ass of death” to find “the womb of fear.”  It’s in the psychoanalytic tradition of Bataille, Story of O, and Behind the Green Door, according to which eros is never very far away from thanatos.  As contrived as its final scenes may feel, Last Tango can end in no other way than with the death of Paul at the hands of Jeanne.  

What is truly erotic about the film--almost intoxicatingly so--is not the sex but rather Bertolucci’s filmmaking.  Aided by Gato Barbieri’s seething, rhapsodic jazz score, and by Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which has the effect of making nearly every shot look like an Impressionist watercolor, Bertolucci envelops us in the space of a dream only to later plunge us into a nightmare.  As a dream, and even as a nightmare, it's one that I relish falling into--and which I find impossible ever to fully shake off.    

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