Tuesday, February 28, 2012
I told Phil and Steven I wouldn't be mentioning Pauline Kael, but it's almost impossible to talk about Last Tango in Paris without acknowledging her larger-than-life review, which hit papers weeks before the film arrived on screens—as I recall, with an already infrequent X rating. "This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made," she declared, arguing it has "altered the face of an art form." The first time I saw it, barely of age, it sailed over my head and I came away thinking it was much ado about nothing, except for the Gato Barbieri soundtrack, which I purchased immediately and played constantly. Somehow, years later, I got talked into seeing it again and that time it blew me down. And that has pretty much been the pattern since. I hate it and I love it. I love it and I hate it.
There are a lot of things to call Last Tango—"maddening" and "pretentious" come quickly to mind—but I really don't think one of them is "erotic" (though Kael certainly got its ambitions right). The depictions of sex are copious and elaborate, but they're not intended to be appealing, and they aren't. Instead, it's the strange, churning chemistry drawing the two central characters into one another's orbits that counts most—Marlon Brando's middle-aged lost man so emotionally splayed it is like viewing a psychic X-ray, and Maria Schneider's youthful woman such an objectified cipher it's easy to lose track of her (but don't, in the long run she's the more interesting character). Their headlong affair is the mystery at the center of this. Many scenes are built around Brando's improvs, many of which misfire. But when they're good, as in a scene that involves the viewing of a dead body, they are unforgettable.
Shout-out to Jean-Pierre Leaud, who I had somehow forgotten is in this until seeing it again recently. The icon of French New Wave here typically plays ... a callow filmmaker.
"You don't have a name and I don't have a name either. No names here. Not one name."
Phil #46: Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961) (scroll down)
Steven #46: Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)
This is one of my favorite all-over-the-places between the three of us—what a crazy triple feature. Last Tango in Paris was halfway me responding to an offhanded joke by Phil that I could expect he and Steven would be talking about Pauline Kael a lot. They are big fans. I am indifferent, and seem to notice more often where she is wrong, and always the heavy hand she applies. In the end, I probably would have left it alone except then a lengthy discussion of Last Tango in Paris was published by Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard that validated it long enough for me to go take another look (somehow I had wound up with a DVD) and I saw a lot to admire, even though it strays often into the ridiculous. It was a late add, leapfrogging the last (first) four. I didn't necessarily want it among my earliest picks, with all of which I had identified so intensely in some way that discussing them felt like a way of introducing myself. Last Tango in Paris is also more problematical because I have had such wildly different reactions to it over the years, so I didn't want it that high either. It's extravagant and silly, never breaks character, and is often one of the bravest things I have ever seen. It can also be a total wince-fest, under the right circumstances, and it's never entirely free of that.