Last Tango in Paris (1972) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Almost everything you read about Last Tango is wrong.

Both Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, who are probably the two most influential and respected film critics in history, declared it to be a masterpiece.

Kael herself wrote a 6,000 word essay on Last Tango, and United Artists printed the entire review verbatim as an ad for the film.

It isn't a masterpiece, however.

It has many characteristics of a masterpiece. It was daring and provocative and original. It has beautiful photography and music, supported by a great performance. The bleak feeling inside Marlon Brando's heart is echoed beautifully by the saxophone-dominated musical score, with the recurring theme alternately plaintive and dissonant. The cinematography is unique - somber, shadowy, painterly. It reflects the mood of the Francis Bacon paintings shown in the intro, and in fact several frames are live recreations of Bacon paintings.

On the other hand, it really has a lot of weaknesses to go along with its strengths.

  • The motivations of the Schneider character are puzzling.
  • The scenes with Schneider and her airhead boyfriend are a complete waste of time.
  • Some of Brando's dialogue is pretentious, florid, and rhetorical.

I can see why Kael and others thought it seemed great at the time, but stripped of its historical significance and viewed with today's eyes, as a stand-alone achievement, it is ultimately a movie with some great elements, but is not a great movie. It is the artistic type of film more prized by critics and intellectuals than by average-Joe moviegoers.

Many people declared it to be erotica, sexual entertainment, or even porn, disguised as art.

Because of the sexual content, the film was banned in Bertolucci's native Italy, all its principals were charged with obscenity in the Italian courts (and later cleared), and it was condemned by the Catholic Church. A Roman court ordered all copies of the film to be seized and burned in 1976, and the film was not legally shown again in Italy until 1987! In the United States, some theaters showing the movie were picketed. Public outcry managed to have the film removed in Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and other places. The various controversies surrounding Last Tango prompted both Time and Newsweek to write cover stores about it.

It has a lot of sex in it, but it isn't erotica, nor is it very entertaining.

In an erotic film, the filmmaker is trying to arouse you with the sex scenes. Erotic means (1) pertaining to sexual love or (2) arousing or satisfying sexual desire. There is no love on display here, and you're not supposed to get aroused or satisfied by these scenes. You're supposed to feel their emptiness, and Brando's pain.

The difference between entertainment and art is not always clear, because entertainment can be artistic, and art can be entertaining. The intentions behind them, however, are different. Entertainment movies are made to make money. Artistic movies, like any work of art in any medium, are made because the filmmaker just has to tell his story and express his artistic instincts. The director probably hopes the project will be admired and make money, but that is not his primary objective. This movie is art. That conclusion is fairly straightforward. But not all art is great art, or even good art, as Yoko Ono has demonstrated. This is where subjectivity enters the debate. "Is this film great art?". In my opinion, no. In Pauline Kael's, yes.

The media threw all the focus on the sex scenes between Brando and Maria Schneider, which encompassed many sexual practices in some detail, but the film isn't really about that, or even about the relationship between those two characters. It is about the void that Brando feels inside of him because of the recent grisly suicide of his wife. Schneider's body is merely the theater upon which Brando acts out his grief. He has anger and despair stored up inside of him, and he acts those feelings out in his carnal encounters with Schneider and in the words he shares with her, both during and apart from their sex scenes.

It certainly isn't porn. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. Porn, by definition, is entertainment which means to make money by giving you a hard-on. This film is totally uncommercial, and if you walk in with a hard-on, it will probably disappear.

If the film is neither an erotic film nor a great cinematic masterpiece, what is it then?

It is Bernardo Bertolucci's portrait of life in pain. It is beautiful. It is ugly. It is sad. It has great elements. It has great flaws. It has artistic aspirations, some of which come to fruition, some of which result in pretension.

Some very serious students of film, including Ebert and Kael, have argued that Brando is the greatest of all film actors, and this may be his most complex and fully realized performance.

No argument from me there. His performance is great. No question.

He performs about the first third of this film in French. He does one scene where he has an imagined dialogue with his wife's corpse, where he falls into despair, questions his own ability to give her a reason to live, changes the make-up prepared by the undertaker, and just generally takes himself to a level of emotion seldom seen in any male performance. Offhand, I can't recall anything comparable to it. I'm not ashamed to say my eyes were misted over.


A great deal of nudity.
  • Schneider is seen in many scenes from many angles, and virtually every square inch of her body is exposed at one time or another.
  • Brando himself shoots a moon in the Tango parlor.

DVD info from Amazon.

Widescreen 2.35:1

Not an exceptionally good DVD, or a very good value.

  • The transfer is very grainy, and I'd love to see someone clean this film up the way they have done with the old Jean Rollin films.

  • No extra features of significance. Just the film and the original trailer.

There are certain types of moviegoers who should avoid this movie. If you are a mainstream viewer who likes a lot of action or a complex and rapidly advancing plot, or if you avoid depressing plots, or if you object to graphic and loveless sex, this is not your cup of tea. You will find it boring, or too depressing, or offensive.

If you are curious about seeing it just for the sex scenes, I would warn you that (1) they aren't all that explicit by today's standards (2) they are arty and sad and sometimes brutal, and not really arousing at all.

This film is not an entertainment, either for those who like traditional plot elements or those who like erotica. It may or may not have succeeded, but it was intended to be a piece of art, and it doesn't have any genuinely hopeful or happy twists or anything else to kow-tow to popular taste, or to alleviate the feeling of hopelessness.

It presents despair. It does so very well.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Four stars. Ebert 4/4, Pauline Kael declared it a masterpiece of the highest order.


The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it only 6.9 out of 10, despite its critical reputation. Many viewers hated it. It would be worthwhile to read their comments before you rent or buy it. Those who hated it found it boring and actionless and endless.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+.

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