From a court in Bologna that banned Last Tango in Paris: “Obscene content offensive to public decency… presented with obsessive self-indulgence, catering to the lowest instincts of the libido, dominated by the idea of stirring unchecked appetites for sexual pleasure, permeated by scurrilous language… accompanied off screen by sounds, sighs and shrieks of climax pleasure.”
If this is scarcely believable, so now is Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review: “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made, and so it’s probably only natural that an audience, anticipating a voluptuous feast from the man who made The Conformist, and confronted with this unexpected sexuality, and the new realism it requires of the actors, should go into shock. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?”
The first ban lasted only two months, though an Italian court later had a negative burned, revoked Bertolucci’s civil rights for five years and gave him a four-month suspended prison sentence. In Britain, the sodomy sequence had to be cut, presumably so as not to encourage public schoolboys. Kael’s 4,000-word review, however, convinced most sceptics that the film was morally serious and a work of art. It is, of course. But there’s such a thing as a morally serious bad work of art.
Last Tango is certainly the film that catapulted Bertolucci towards international fame, the story of a middle-aged man, who, devastated by the apparent suicide of his wife, embarks on a purely sexual sadomasochistic affair with a young girl, who, in the end, kills him.
Throughout the film, the girl is naked and the man is not, which caused further controversy. There were two other significant reviews. Molly Haskell pointed out that it was women rather than men who responded to the film. “Our rearguard fantasies of rape, sadism, submission, liberation and anonymous sex are as important a key to our emancipation, our self-understanding, as our more advanced and admirable efforts at self-definition.”
Then there was Norman Mailer, who said that the real thrill was the peephole an improvising Brando offered us on Brando.
Maria Schneider, as the girl, was unknown at the time, and Bertolucci, who failed to cast both Dominique Sanda and Catherine Deneuve when they became pregnant, has said he wanted her to be a Lolita but more perverse. He chose Brando after seeing a Francis Bacon painting “of a man in great despair who had the air of total disillusionment”.
Certainly it is a performance of extraordinary force. Brando’s friend Jack Lemmon claims it was based on his childhood, when he decided not to have any relationship in which he was going to “get murdered emotionally”.
This may be the key to the film, since the pair play cruel, often childish games with each other in between and even during their sexual bouts. She is a child-woman – “Growing older is a crime,” she says – and he is escaping back into childhood. The film’s imagery consistently reflects this as well as commenting on ageing and death.
Whether it really indicts the bourgeois family structures that “civilise” the savage in us all is a moot point. But it clearly tries to do so. In the end, however, it seems too melodramatic to be entirely successful and too much of a neat, if shocking, fantasy psychodrama to get near the truth.
But it does prove Brando to be a great screen actor and Bertolucci to be a director capable of the audacity of Godard and the naked power of Bergman.