If movie audiences weren’t plonking down money in 1973 to see Linda Blair vomit pea soup in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, they were lining up to see Marlon Brando butter up Maria Schneider in Last Tango In Paris. If ever a film was born in controversy, this is the one.
The sexual adventures of a middle-aged man who anonymously rents a Parisian apartment with a provocative young woman, this was never going to be Brief Encounter.
The couple agree never to talk about their lives or reveal their names (his is Paul, hers is Jeanne by the way) in order to keep their relationship anonymous and exclusively physical.
However, it is revealed that she is about to be married to a young TV filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Léaud), while Brando is attempting to understand the recent unexplained suicide of his wife.
In the end, it is Brando’s Paul who shatters the artificial world against Jeanne’s will.
He moves out of the flat and announces his desire to marry her, but she cannot countenance a bourgeois alliance with the man she refers to, disrespectfully, as maître d’hôtel. The iron rule remains – no names.
As events draw towards the climax (no pun intended), he bursts into her apartment and demands to know her name.
She’s holding a gun in her hand in self-defence, and as she fulfils his request the gun goes off. It’s impossible to say what killed him – the weapon or the word.
The two principal actors bravely bared far more than their bodies in this artistic collaboration. Sure, the notorious butter/sodomy scene will live in cinema infamy, but it is the film’s raw emotion that truly gives it power.
The outcry began when the film opened commercially in Paris and the Sunday Mirror devoted its entire front page to what it tastefully called “the excesses” of the film.
Gradually a small storm grew and would have blown itself out, but for the practice of other English newspapers sending reporters out to Paris to see the film and debate whether or not it should be passed by the censors for distribution in Britain.
What has been forgotten (or at least veiled in mystery) is the true authorship of the film. Bertolucci claims he wrote every word and Schneider has told of dialogue sheets being pasted all over the set – including on her arse.
However Brando’s gift for improvisation has always been celebrated and much of his dialogue is so mid-Western American that it seems unlikely to be the product of a youthful Italian who seemed more accurately represented by the Godardian, but juvenile, film director played by Jean-Pierre Léaud.
No matter where the script came from, the combined talents of the Pepsi Generation’s Bertolucci and Schneider, buttressed by the intimidating yet generous talents of Brando creating a character with an autobiographical vulnerability no major actor had revealed before – or since – made this a great film.
Marie Helene Breillat