There is already an established genre of cinema or literature that can be most candidly called “white men in strange lands.” I will not go into details since Said, Spivak, Bhabha, and others are the real authorities on the subject matter. What is more interesting is when a white man takes interest in another white man’s home. Paris is a favorite. Hollywood never gets tired of this. There is even a movie titled An American in Paris. What is it with Paris? The art? The history? The culture? Whatever it is, there is none of that in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.
Reminiscent of the ‘lost generation’ of the 20s (Hemingway et al), story of an American, Paul (Marlon Brando) whose wife committed suicide in the hotel they own. He roams around the city in despair, leading into an apartment for rent in Rue Jules Verne. A woman, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), is also looking for a place where her fiancé (Jean-Pierre Léaud) could stay. After being dumb folded by a peculiar receptionist, she checks it out herself, and finds Paul is already there. After a few awkward exchanges, they make love in a rough manner. Jeanne is getting married, while meeting her fiancé in the train station; she was stunned to see a film crew with him. He intends to make a movie of their story.
Paul and Jeanne meet in the apartment, have sex and not reveal who they are. They isolate themselves form a world that is harsh and hypocrisy. Paul confronts his wife’s death, dealing with his mother-in-law and her lover, and eventually preparing her funeral. Jeanne puts up with her fiancé, participating in shooting footages of things that ever happened. Their relationship gets more intense and complex, involving the infamous “anal rape” scene causing the film to be banned for some time in US and other places. Jeanne gets frustrated with the wedding and shootings, tries to leave her fiancé and confesses to Paul that she is in love with him.
In both their existential struggles, Paul snaps first. Paul drags Jeane to a dance hall but there wasn’t really a literal ‘last tango’ scene since Paul, drunk, is busy making commotion. Jeanne is now frightened. It would be hard to believe that Last Tango in Paris is actually a love story because of the atmosphere of despair, not to mention sadomasochistic sex. The sex is however just the tip of the iceberg, it shows what is beneath Paris, and there is nothing. Paris is now cold, cruel, and lifeless. And this is true for anywhere. Bertolucci’s Paris will remain to be a challenge to the senses, since void it represents very well is fatal for many.