Oscar Blindspots: Last Tango in Paris

It might be 50 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1973 through the month of May

For a film with such a glowing reputation as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, I was expecting something monumental and moving. Instead, the film paints a fantasy of two middle-aged men and how their horrible actions could be excused due to grief and loneliness.

Marlon Brando stars as Paul, a middle-aged American hotel owner living in Paris. Following the suicide of his wife, Paul meets a young Parisian woman named Jeanne (Maria Schneider) at an apartment both have interest in renting. The pair begin an anonymous sexual relationship, but Paul insists on no personal information, even names.

As their relationship continues, Paul’s abrasiveness and control begin to take over in darker forms. Jeanne also wants to settle down with film director Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud), while Paul searches for answers to his wife’s psyche and her eventual suicide.

The film is relatively plotless. There is no momentum in the narrative, but rather a series of vignettes with characters we barely know and who barely no each other. The roaming and directionless dialogue is one of the more interesting parts of the film, but it’s not what the film and Bertolucci care about.

Instead, Bertolucci and Brando engage in a sexual power play with the physical aspects being paramount without any consideration into emotional attachment. On top of that, Schneider reported the infamous “butter” scene was sprung on her and was a spur of the moment decision by Bertolucci and Brando. Knowing that while watching makes the scene that much more repugnant and uninteresting.

Not only is the scene unnecessary, it’s narratively confusing. Why does Paul decide to rape Jeanne? Why does Jeanne stay? There is no narrative reasoning for either things to occur, but the film is supposed to believe this is something worthwhile about these characters. It’s an abhorrent scene without purpose.

Some film scholars praise Brando’s Oscar-nominated performance as one of the finest acting performances in film history. I just don’t see it. He is a broken man, but his detachment doesn’t manifest into anything that resembles a normal human being. He is obviously in severe grief, but he also continually breaks his own rules that might as well be gospel. I didn’t see a master thespian, I saw a rambling old man trying to be edgy that ends up being silly.

Schneider does a much better job. Despite the things Bertolucci and Brando put her through, she acquiesces to the role she is given. The film wants to sympathize with Paul and his troubles, but Jeanne is a much more intriguing and captivating protagonist. All the acclaim heaped on Brando should have been bestowed on Schneider.

A film that has aged like milk, Last Tango in Paris is neither profound nor all that interesting to watch. The film’s legacy is shrouded in too many terrible behind-the-scenes issues for any positive aspects to take hold.

Next week: Jack Lemmon and Tatum O’Neal win well-deserved Oscars for their performances in Save the Tiger and Paper Moon

Review: Blonde
Oscar Blindspots: Enchanted April/Damage

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