Bernardo Bertolucci's crackpot melodrama Last Tango in Paris took the world by storm with its strategy of sexual frankness and a towering performance by Marlon Brando. The film's title has become all but synonymous with sex in cinema, but there's nothing gratuitous about the sex scenes—which are wholly integral to the plot—unless you consider the entire film gratuitous, which is certainly possible. One thing is certain: they don't make 'em like this anymore, and it's a damn shame. Though not everything works in Last Tango in Paris, its filmmaking adventurousness stands as a reminder of an effectively bygone adult cinema.
Brando plays an American in Paris, but no Gene Kelly he. Forty-five-year-old Paul projects a manly control, but it's a cover for the chaos of his spirit. Devastated by the suicide of his wife, Paul is a man adrift; when he lights on an apartment he's considering renting—presumably as an escape from memories of his wife—he encounters a very young woman named Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who also has her eye on the apartment. Their verbal dance suddenly erupts into a feral sexual session on the apartment floor. Eventually, they reach a tentative agreement: they will continue to rendezvous in the apartment, under Paul's condition of no questions asked: "I don't wanna know your name…I don't wanna know anything about you. You and I are going to meet here without knowing anything that goes on outside." Jeanne later observes, "It's beautiful without knowing anything."
The viewer, under no such duress, follows both characters around the city between trysts to discover that Paul runs the hotel he shared with his wife and that Jeanne is the prize of avant-garde filmmaker Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud of The 400 Blows). Though he's a pretentious fool too self-involved truly to love Jeanne, Tom nevertheless proposes marriage; the popped question allows Jeanne some dramatic tension, as she decides what to do with the recently doubled population of men in her life. Meanwhile, Paul and Jeanne continue to navigate their passionate, exciting, but awkward relationship, inevitably breaking the rules and seemingly heading for a crash (Bertolucci's allusions to La Bohème and L'Atalante seem to promise tragedy ahead). The misogynistic gestures on the part of Paul (and/or Bertolucci and Brando) haven't lost their power to disturb, the story's resolution doesn't work, and some of the dialogue can send eyes rolling, but there's an undeniable power in the sexual fantasy of the apartment as an island, a world apart from anyone else.
Last Tango in Paris is winningly eccentric, dark but also oddly whimsical in its mood, music, camerawork, and personalities. Adding immeasurably to the film's spontaneity is Brando's infamous acting method: legendarily, he wrote or rewrote most of his dialogue, which was secreted around the room on cue cards. Despite this seeming handicap, the actor turns in some of his most potent work, bold in its physical and emotional nakedness and climaxing (if you'll pardon the pun) with a memorable, soul-baring soliloquy delivered to his wife's body. Bertolucci fires on all cylinders, conspiring with crack cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to shoot Paris with fresh eyes (their take on the characters is strikingly reflected in the Francis Bacon paintings that make up the film's title sequence). If none of that grabs ya, there's always the sex, which earned the film an "X" (now NC-17) rating.
Last Tango in Paris makes its Blu-ray debut with an impressive, film-like hi-def transfer. Working from clean source materials (with but an occasional spot), MGM delivers the film's natural grain, along with accurate (and much improved) color and contrast. Though there's an inherent softness to the source, the film still impresses with Vittorio Storaro's handsome cinematography, and detail gets a noticeable bump up from the DVD, which looks, by comparison, poorly resolved indeed. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track makes the most of the original elements, which are in solid shape; it's a faithful and perfectly effective delivery of the dialogue, ambience and music.
The sole extra is a “Theatrical Trailer” (1:32, HD), but it's great to see this title treated well with a top-notch HD transfer.
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