For a long time, I avoided watching Last Tango because people told me it was grim, sadistic, and bleak. One colleague warned me, “Sabrina it ain’t!” Originally Tango was rated X. Everyone knows about the infamous butter/anal sex scene, but what grabbed my attention was the dialogue, and the black humor of the screenplay.
Spoilers and adult content ahead.
Humor, you ask? Well, yes. Very grim humor, mind you. It’s there in Paul’s lines when he tells Jeanne that in ten years, she’s going to be playing soccer with her tits, or ruefully notes that he himself has a prostate the size of an Idaho potato. He pretends that he’s going to eat a dead rat “with mayonnaise,” and as he leaves the room with it, he throws back a parting shot at the disgusted Jeanne: “I’ll save you the asshole.”
When they’re in bed together, Jeanne pretends to be Little Red Riding Hood:
Jeanne: What strong arms you have!
Paul (in gruff voice): The better to squeeze a fart out of you!
Jeanne: What big hands you have!
Paul: The better to scratch your ass!
Jeanne (sliding her hand beneath the covers): What a lot of fur you have!
Paul: The better for your crabs to live in.
Lines like these reveal Paul’s character–mordant, earthy, world-weary, still capable of pleasure and even tenderness, but underneath that strange combination of animal brutishness and verbal facility, he’s a tortured soul. It is with good reason that director Bertolucci rolls the opening credits over two portraits of agony by Francis Bacon.
In a lighter vein, there’s the scene where Jeanne’s boyfriend, an aspiring young film director with amusing “auteur” pretensions, takes her into the garden of her childhood home along with his motley “crew” of camera and sound men. They discover a group of little boys taking a shit in the bushes, and when challenged, the lads make a run for it, with the posse of dutiful cameramen in hot pursuit…
Jeanne’s character is not as well defined as Paul’s, but that makes sense because she is so young. She’s confused about love and sex and men. Yet she has her own ideas and opinions. She’s not a mere cipher, and she doesn’t always put up with Paul’s bullshit.
Paul: And where do you think I’m going to be in ten years?
Jeanne: In a wheelchair?
There’s another funny scene where Jeanne’s cinéaste boyfriend Tom proposes to her in front of some sort of canal lock with rushing water below them. He puts a life preserver around her, and after she finally says yes, he joyfully casts it into the water. The camera focuses on the life preserver as it sinks dolefully into the depths.
In spite of its explicitness about sex, many critics contend that the film is not about the erotic, as Pauline Kael thought. Although the sexual magnetism of both Brando and his 22-year old co-star (Maria Schneider, who recently died at 58) is much in evidence, most of the sex scenes are not pornographic, in the sense that they do not inspire lust.
The film addresses Paul’s pain, and how he uses sex, instead of drugs or alcohol, to dull that pain. Bertolucci has stated, however, that he based elements of the film on his sexual fantasies. On a second viewing, certain moments are undeniably erotic. Yet melancholy and death are always near.
From Jeanne’s perspective, it’s easier to affirm that the story is about sex. She’s twenty, bourgeoise, naive. Viewers often express disbelief that a beautiful young woman like Jeanne would willingly meet a balding, middle-aged, pudgy man for anonymous sex. But this is Brando. And Paul’s character draws much from Brando’s film and real-life personalities (he’s a failed boxer… his French isn’t too bad… he’s lived in Tahiti…).
Where an older, more experienced woman might have no use for this charismatic loser, Jeanne falls under his spell immediately, and finds herself unable to break away. She feels a powerful sexual infatuation. Once she tastes the wild, boundary-pushing, transgressive, passionate sexual experience that Paul offers, she can’t stop herself. She recognizes that Paul is bad for her, but she keeps coming back for more.
That’s why I don’t feel the disgust that many others do at the way Paul treats her. There’s a slight ambiguity about consent in some of the sex scenes, especially the butter scene, where Jeanne weeps. But from the first encounter, Jeanne never tells him to stop. She’s willing to experience what he’s dishing out and she’s not truly afraid that he’ll hurt her (in fact, Paul is far more scary and cruel when he interacts with his mother-in-law).
The “demeaning” aspect is more to do with Paul’s shocking language than with his physical brutality. In fact, he can be tender, as in the scene where he bathes Jeanne after she arrives soaked to the skin. The deliberate de-romanticizing of their relationship is counteracted by their moments of intimacy, though Paul usually reacts to these by reverting to corrosive scatological jokes.
Paul’s agony and his need to dominate a female sexual partner is fully explained. He meets and seduces Jeanne immediately after discovering the body of Rosa, his suicidal wife, in a bathtub full of blood. In later scenes we learn that he passionately loved the beautiful Rosa, but she was a serial cheater who (more or less) gouged his heart out and served it to him on a stick.
The decrepit flat where he meets Jeanne is a sealed bubble, and even in a sense a comforting womb, where he can regress to an animalistic or infantile state, losing himself in his body, hooting like an ape, and shutting away the outside world. It’s ironic that Paul’s safe space is the space of experimentation and danger for Jeanne. But by the film’s end, the bubble collapses. Paul tells Jeanne:
I’m forty-five, a widower, I’ve got a little hotel, it’s kind of a dump, but it’s not completely a flophouse. And, I used to live on my luck, and then I got married, and my wife killed herself. What the hell, I’m no prize…
After this self-revelation, the spell is broken. The tango scene for which the film is named takes place in the outside world, as Paul attempts to refashion their anonymous relationship into something workable outside the bubble. The artificiality of the tango dancers, and his own grotesque dance with Jeanne, points toward his inevitable failure.
The moment of truth comes when Paul follows Jeanne to her apartment even though she shouts “NO!” at him over and over. Ironically, now that he is a lover in earnest, he crosses the line into creepiness. Her explicit lack of consent means nothing in the face of his newfound love, his desire to reveal himself at last. He forces his way into the flat where she lives with her parents. And where her father’s service revolver still sits in a drawer.
It may have been Roger Ebert who said that one or the other of these two had to die. I’m glad it wasn’t Jeanne, for in the hands of a lesser director, she surely would have been the victim. And I think this is a truly great film.