Last Tango in Paris
Touching a Sore Spot
Can we view the ending of Last Tango in Paris as a hysterical reaction on the part of the young woman to the advances of an older man (a father figure more than twice her age) the moment he enters her and her parents' apartment? Up until this point they have been holed up almost exclusively in an empty Parisian flat, the relationship existing outside the social norms most love affairs exist within and that often only adulterous ones try to restrict. In Bernardo Bertolucci's film, the young Jeanne (Maria Schneider) does happen to have a fianc but there is little sense this is why she is so keen to keep secret her affair with Paul (Marlon Brando). It is actually Paul who seems more insistent that the assignations remain private and within the four walls of the apartment, trying to find in the coupling a primal force that would make prying eyes irrelevant. "I'm better off with a grunt or a groan", Paul says after Jeanne suggests she needs to invent a name for him. As the camera offers them in a medium close up, their naked bodies seated and entangled, Paul exclaims that he's been called by numerous names in his life: here is an opportunity to go without one. If Paul seeks a primal immediacy, by the end of the film the always semi-reluctant Jeanne wishes very much to escape it, seeing the sexual encounter as an aberration she eradicates by killing Paul. Afterwards, preparing her alibi, the gun in her hand, she says, "he follows me in the street...he tried to rape me..."
If Robert Bresson famously ends Pickpocket with the central character saying "Oh Jeanne, to reach you at last...what a strange path I had to take" Jeanne here inverts it. In Bresson's film the path leads to grace, in Bertolucci's it leads to disgrace, with Paul unable to hold Jeanne in his sweaty, degrading grip. We offer this distinction without judgement; more as a different mode of loving. Bresson is the existential Christian, the director absorbed in a tradition that includes Pascal and Kierkegaard philosophically, and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as enormous literary influences, with the presence of the latter on at least four of his films and adapting the former's 'The Forged Coupon' as his final work. Bertolucci's genealogy is instead Freudian/Marxist and he has been drawn to adapting earthier modern writers like Allberto Moravia and Paul Bowles. Though he cast Bresson discovery Dominique Sanda in his previous film, The Conformist, and wanted her for Last Tango in Paris (she was pregnant), his concerns have always been very different from those of Bresson and the ascetic tradition, one well noted by Rolling Stone's Jonathan Cott. Interviewing the director, Cott believed "the idea of sexuality and politics come up in all your films...you present a number of characters who seem in many respects to be sexually liberated, yet their liberated actions often seem to emerge from and also reveal a basically unliberated personality." Cott gives examples like Gina ((Adriana Asti) in Before the Revolution, Dreifa (Alida Valli) in The Spider's Stratagem, Anna Qaudri (Sanda) and Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in The Conformist, but perhaps nobody more so, and more complexly, than Jeanne here. In the documentary her partner (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is making about her life, we find out her dead father was a military man and that her first love was a cousin named Paul. Just after Brando's Paul puts on her father's military hat he asks to know her name. She mouths it and shoots him.
One wouldn't wish to be overly schematic here, but any filmmaker so determined to interweave the familial, the political and the sexual in his work can expect someone watching Last Tango in Paris to see a film not only about a middle-aged man determined to escape the constraints of bourgeois society but also a young woman still in her teens working through her sexual instincts and inclinations, her need to liberate herself from the shackles of family and finding herself psychically making little progress at all as she sleeps with a man with the same name as her first love and who could easily pass for her late father. Yet just because Bertolucci is fascinated by the Freudian that needn't mean he is beholden to it. We can speculate on Jeanne's behaviour but we can't determine it. If we claim her response at the end of the film happens to be hysterical it won't necessarily rest on the clear action in the past but the conflation of events that make up an action in the present. As Juliet Mitchell notes, while Freud was studying hysteria in the late 1880s and 1890s he found so many of his female patients describing scenes where their father's seduced them. Initially, Freud took this to be literal, but "then realised that the whole thing was a phantasy...the fact that, as Freud himself was well aware, actual paternal seduction or rape occurs not infrequently, has nothing to do with the essential concepts of psychoanalysis." (Pyschoanalysis and Feminism) Bertolucci doesn't claim to know Jeanne and nor should we but one can say with some confidence what the problematic Bertolucci happens to be working out of; one that it has very little do with the concerns of a Bresson as the Italian director concludes with crime rather than redemption, a manifestation of denial rather than the illumination of grace.
Bertolucci's preoccupation was one that appeared in many filmmakers' work in the late sixties and the seventies and the better the film often more sublimated was the problem. It is one concerning the everyday fascism that tried to understand not so much the Fascist and Nazi eras (though that was often part of it) but the recapitulative ideology that Fascism found so easy to tap into, the notion that people given half a chance fall into a Fascist mindset. When Cott asks if the "Fascist tendency is universal, why make many of your characters racists instead of communists?", Bertolucci replied "well because the average man is fascist. All my characters are predestined. They're doomed, but it's not destiny that's decided to doom them, it's their unconscious." To be released from this tyrannical unconscious requires both Freud and Marx to create a self capable of a profound socialism rather than falling into a pallid or extreme fascism. There is a great deal of difference between the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Bertolucci but one of the things they do share is this interest in what a Fascist consciousness looks like, how it comes into being and how it retreats without necessarily disappearing, evident in Fassbinder works like The Merchant of the Four Seasons and Fear Eats the Soul. One cannot expect revolutionary consciousness from people who are chiefly neurotic and insecure but such traits are ripe for Fascism. It was as though Bertolucci knew he was as readily the subject on the couch as the filmmaker behind the camera. He went into therapy himself in 1970 (Sight and Sound, Sept. 1991) and his father has claimed Bernardo "hates and loves his background, his life, his class. Therefore the heroes of his autobiographical films always try to break loose but fail in the end." (Passion and Defiance) Bertolucci may not have the inner Fascist waiting to manifest itself but the revolutionary is still far from apparent. In Last Tango in Paris we should remember that Paul has just lost his wife the day before he meets Jeanne in the empty apartment. Any radical mindset he possesses can't easily be distinguished from grief; in the circumstances, we might be inclined to assume he ought to be visiting a therapist in their office rather than a woman less than half his age in an empty apartment. But this is where perhaps the new consciousness must come, out of a crisis that doesn't want to resolve itself in a return to normality but that sees the symptoms of the crisis are growth spurts towards a new possible self.
In this sense aesthetics can become a psychoanalytic tool meeting a Marxist demand: it can open up the self to new manifestations rather than closing the self down. As Deleuze and Guattari put it in their famous work of anti-psychiatry, Anti-Oedipus: "all the chains of the unconscious are biunivocalized, linearized, suspended from a despotic signifiier." If traditional Hollywood might seem a little like traditional psychoanalysis, then anti-psychiatry helped explain numerous films of the period that wished to call into question bourgeois well-being: WR Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie, The Last Woman, Le Grande Bouffe, Themroc, Woman Under the Influence and of course Last Tango in Paris too. "It is as if Freud had drawn back from this world of wild production and explosive desire," Deleuze and Guattari say, wanting at all costs to restore a little order there, an order made classical owing to ancient Greek theater." Other thinkers of the time were inclined to agree, whether it happened to be Foucault, Laing, Cooper or Szasz. As R. D. Laing said: "we are born into a world where alienation awaits us. We are potentially men, but are in an alienated state, and this state is not simply a natural system...." (The Politics of Experience) Seeing the film as an exploration in the possibilities of self-liberation, Bertolucci reckoned, "self-liberation in the sense I employ the term is a first step towards living better, towards the finding of an equilibrium with your subconscious, towards the finding of a peaceful relationship with your subconscious." (Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews)
Yet the film is also a work of art; it doesn't represent the psychoanalytic it contributes aesthetically to what this might mean as an object in itself. One way of looking at this is to suggest that film must frame the problem, that whatever limitations a filmmaker might place upon him or herself within the story and the location (whether it chooses to be very baroque or very simple; uses studio sets or actual locations) one of the most basic limitations, and thus one of the most important of choices, lies in the frame. Jean Mitry says that the frame is "the absolute referent" (The Aesthetics and Psychology of Cinema) and Bertolucci wouldn't be inclined to disagree. `From the very beginning of the film, he announces this interest in the frame by introducing us to a couple of Francis Bacon paintings over the credits, and also talks very intriguingly about how Brando occupies space as though he generates a frame that he fits within. "It's interesting to note the relationship between Marlon's body and the space around him. We are usually dominated by space, but Brando strangely dominates space. Personally, I need the 'camera' to dominate the "space"; but Brando is the only person I've met who dominates space naturally without the need of a camera or a pen to write or a trapeze or a racing car." (Rolling Stone) There is in Brando an aspect of the figures in Bacon who can't quite seem constrained within the frame and yet at the same time we have Bertolucci the filmmaker who insistently tries to generate that constraint. If Last Tango in Paris remains a film of great importance it doesn't reside only in the nature of its psycho-sexual enquiry but also the tension it generates between an actor who dominates space and a director who insistently frames it.
Bertolucci also says that Brando's "dialectic with the space is the same as a work of art that's already been achieved." (Rolling Stone) What does this mean? Perhaps with Brando unlike most people (even actors), the space he occupies is never just occupied but if you like preoccupied. Both actors on screen and humans in life generate being through actions which define them, as though the surplus energy that is constantly present gets dispelled through deeds that turn that energy into a defined self. A very interesting actor like Steve McQueen is someone who occupies space without indicating very much preoccupation at all: he is often a fine actor of determination (in The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Cincinnati Kid, The Getaway) and propulsion which usually relies on the vehicular (the bike in The Great Escape, the car in Bullitt, the truck in The Hunter, even the self-made raft in Papillon). McQueen eats up space as a gnawing determination to extend his existence. Brando occupies and preoccupies it and thus also happens to be one of the great actors of the frame. Even if the frame happens to be as Mitry says "the absolute referent", it is often all but ignored as screen space keeps expanding while the frame merely becomes the means by which to reveal that constantly expanding space. Bertolucci is interested in seeing the frame as a means by which to produce the aesthetic rather than a necessary evil that restricts the action. If Brando happens to be an actor as Bertolucci claims who can utilise space with all the authority of a finished artwork, then Bertolucci is a director who insists on using the frame in a manner that allows the aesthetic to manifest itself. When for example Brando asks a woman if she liked a particular man who happened to be Paul's wife's lover, the frame is offered with a fierce symmetry. On the left-hand side of the frame is the woman; on the right side Brando. Diegetically, in terms of the screen space, what we have is a woman on the stairwell, Paul by the door. But the framing is much more important than just the screen space as Bertolucci frames it so that the woman is standing in front of one, closed, door and Brando is standing on the threshold of the open door next to it. What the shot exemplifies is Brando as an actor who has always been able to combine the theatrical with the cinematic, but also includes the figure. In theatre, of course, the actor projects outwards: a modified space that is the stage becomes the arena in which the actor then conveys the performance to an audience beyond that space yet within the same room. In film, the space is usually much more expansive but the audience much more removed. The actor doesn't so much project the performance outwards as projection but as action they move through that space extensively as we find in many a McQueen movie. Imagine trying to do Bullitt or The Thomas Crown Affair on the stage? In the painting, the model as a figure is the most restricted of all. He or she wouldn't really be called an actor even if we might wonder which actors do have the stillness or the internal force the occupied preoccupation to convey through that immobile body the nature of their being. Brando is one such actor; others might include De Niro, Huppert, Rampling, Delon and Vitti. When we see Brando in this shot he has his hand on his chin and we can freeze the frame and muse over what he might be thinking. Only an actor capable of registering thought in a fixed state can represent this.
To understand this better we might think of a moment from any McQueen film but The Cincinnati Kid will do. He has just taken Karl Malden's wife home, Ann-Margret, and she stands by the door ready to seduce McQueen. We cut to McQueen looking off-screen with a drink in his hand and a look on his face that indicates he is weighing up his options and weighing up Ann-Margret's character. What will he do we might wonder, but this wondering isn't quite the same as the sort of contemplation Brando frequently invokes. It is the calculative mind working out the best way to deal with any given situation Ann-Margret isn't too different from a motorbike he is trying to start or a car whose gear changes he must master. McQueen is a very fine actor of cinematic propulsion but we don't see him as someone who especially frames the situations he happens to be in. The out-of-frame doesn't generally become mysterious or the frame itself aesthetic but, with the actors we mentioned above, this frequently happens to be so. The difference between Delon and McQueen (who could more easily than most be cast in a Hollywood remake of Le samourai) rests on this point. Delon lends himself very well to being framed because there is a stillness in his best performances that means the purpose of action is secondary to the contemplation of the moment. Often of course in Melville's films he is thinking ahead but he is also just thinking. There is a scene in Le samourai when Delon is off to pick up money from the hit and Melville follows him in a series of shots which indicate both on-screen framing and off-screen mystery. As he comes out of the first station we see him in a long lens shot in the underpass, a frame as impeccable as an Edward Hopper in capturing the solitude of man. Just afterwards, walking down some stairs, Delon glances offscreen, a look of suspicion perhaps but at what we cannot say - Melville offers no counter shot to tell us what he is looking at. Both the Hopperesque moment of solitariness and the dart off-screen capture well Delon's capacity to be vital to a framed feeling and to suggest off-screen space. Clearly, this is far from some innate quality of the actor watch some of Delon's films from the eighties and you see a star working as the most obvious of action heroes. But equally only a number of actors seem capable of framing a feeling and invoking the mysterious beyond the demands of the story. Delon is one of them. McQueen, a very important star, isn't.
Yet let us not digress too far and return to another remark Bertolucci makes about Brando. "Marlon isn't an intellectual. He doesn't read very much. But it's incredible when I looked at him during the shooting I found in him a lot of Henry Miller, a lot of Hemingway, a lot of Raymond Chandler - I think he's a living concentrate of American literature." (Rolling Stone) Bertolucci then adds, "but I think we should talk about the language of the film." Yet in our reckoning they aren't discrete: part of Brando's capacity to invoke American literature in his being allows Bertolucci to frame him without the need for action. At one moment Brando puts a small lampshade up to his face and cupping it in his hands breathes in. Bertolucci offers a chiaroscuro effect as Brando is lit and the space around him in darkness, but no matter the quality of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's lighting, Brando must be able to contain in his being a presence that can convey depth in stillness. We can think of numerous other shots too. The one where the maid is cleaning out the bath Paul's wife has killed herself in and when Paul asks her to turn off the taps. The maid is on the left-hand side of the frame behind the shower panel, Paul on the right-hand side looking on. The frame is precisely demarcated down the middle. Later, when Paul sits with his wife's dead body, he switches the lamp on beside him and the image frames him like a man hardly more alive than his wife the shot has the hush of a crypt. Whether it is through framing or lighting, the film is constantly creating space for stillness over action so that even though Paul is often brutal in the film, grabbing the maid, haranguing his mother-in-law or forcing himself upon Jeanne, it is from this stillness that he works and that Bertolucci can light and frame. Brando might be unconstrained as an actor and Bertolucci obsessively constraining as a director, but without Brando's capacity for static tension the image might have remained flaccid. The absolute referent of the frame can only become clearly so when an actor occupies it and isn't insistently moving it towards action. If Brando contains within him American literature it rests partly on a disposition that indicates collective wisdom as bodily presence. Many an actor just wouldn't suggest that 'literary' force. Can we imagine even perfectly effective actors like Harrison Ford, William Holden or Kevin Kline capable of channelling the presence of Hemingway and Miller, Fitzgerald and all the Americans in Paris? Whether it is Ford in Frantic, Holden (playing a writer) in When Paris Sizzles or Kline in French Kiss, they might manage to echo an individual writer perhaps, but to sum up American literature itself would have been far beyond them partly because none of them possesses a reflective stillness Brando so easily occupies.
Yet of course many liked to give the impression that Brando wasn't much of a thinker at all, and certainly a hypocrite. When people question works or attitudes that seem to demand radical transformation, while working within a system that rewards actors and filmmakers for their compromises, they often insist on seeing hypocrisy at play. We can think of two very different approaches to this. One is evident in a studio executive's remark, saying after Brando had a Native American receive his Oscar for The Godfather, "I'm sick of these bleeding-heart liberals like Brando who grow fat on the capitalism they despise." Norman Mailer's position was more the opposite when reviewing Last Tango in Paris. "A marvellous scene, good as a passionate kiss in real life, then not so good because there has been no shot of Brando going up Schneider..." The exec feels that Brando offers platitudes but takes the cash; Mailer reckons Brando didn't go far enough: agreeing to make a film about sex and then backing out from performing the act itself with his leading actress. (A point that came back to haunt the film many years later when some claimed erroneously that Brando had actually raped Schneider in the infamous butter sequence.) But the artwork can be seen less as a capitalist compromise (one that takes studio money yet condemns bourgeois society) or a revolutionary failure (that it backs away from the radicalism it proposes) but as a consolidatory consolation; a work that draws from life but that needn't resemble it. Ostensibly, the artist and the hypocrite resemble each other. The hypocrite will insist that people ought to act by certain standards and then totally fails to live up to those values him or herself. The politician who insists on family values while hiding the fact he has a mistress and an illegitimate child; the businessman who reckons market forces must be honoured and then takes a government bailout when their too-big-to-fail firm looks like it will collapse. The executive accusing Brando of getting rich on corporate money while rejecting capitalism sees the actor as no different from the hypocritical businessman and politician. Equally, for different reasons, Mailer sees hypocrisy in Brando making a sex film without actual sex. But both Mailer and the executive are missing the point; if going in different directions in the process of missing it. If the exec merely wanted to say Brando shouldn't be using an Oscar win as an opportunity to make a political statement, this might be fair enough. But Brando has always been interested in where the film starts and life ends what happens to constitute a performance, saying "everybody is an actor, you spend your whole day acting." (Conversations with Marlon Brando) The exec thinks Brando should take the money and keep his mouth shut; Brando suggests that the Oscar ceremony itself is a performance and why not violate it by rejecting the award and having a Native American offering a brief speech about her people: a moment of authenticity to break through the cant of the Academy Awards? Mailer insists that Brando should have gone further into the authenticity with his performance in Last Tango in Paris, that he and Schneider should have been having sex for real. But let us say Brando's Oscar rejection was a political rather than an aesthetic act, and that Mailer's insistence of actual sex on Last Tango in Paris would have been a documentative act that wouldn't have added much to the consolidatory consolation we believe is vital to the work. If Mailer insists on authenticity when it comes to the sex act, shouldn't that logic have incorporated Brando's own demise when he gets shot at the end of the film? Let us not put words into Mailer's mouth but let us also use the words of another to indicate that, from a certain perspective, Mailer's claims are antithetical to art. Andre Bazin believed: "if you can show me on the screen a man and a woman whose dress and position are such that at least the beginnings of sexual consummation undoubtedly accompanied the action, then I would have the right to demand, in a crime film, that you really killed the victim." ('Eroticism in the Cinema) Bertolucci's film may have been more explicit than anything likely to have been shown in arthouse cinemas at the time, but the director's purpose wasn't to show sex acts (Beyond the Green Door and Deep Throat were both doing that in New York in 1972) but muse over what intimacy happens to be and whether sex is the best way of exploring it. He may have chosen to show sex on screen but the aim wasn't chiefly to reveal sexual mechanics (again Beyond the Green Door and Deep Throat were there for that) but the need to investigate the sexual psyche of the time. The difference between Beyond the Green Door and Last Tango in Paris wasn't only the explicitness of the former and the implicitness of the latter. It was also the difference between exploiting a moment in time and trying to understand it. It wouldn't make much sense to mobilise Freud and Marx, Deleuze and Laing to comprehend the value of the porn film even if one might utilise such thinking to understand an aspect of their existence and how such works could play in cinemas by the early seventies.
Yet they wouldn't possess the consolidatory consolation, the sense in which the work exists as an intermediary between life and fantasy, between what we can realistically expect and unrealistically hope for. To get lost in accusing Brando of hypocrisy because he accepted capitalist money while critiquing capitalism, or lacked daring because he retreated from actual sex on screen, would be to ignore the film's wish to enquire into what a sexual being happens to be given the circumstances of the social and material conditions of the time. If Paul through Brando carries within him the weight of the world evident partly in Bertolucci's interest in Brando as a presence, and the way he contains in him American literature, Jeanne, through Schneider, indicates instead a weightless world, someone who comes to the screen without any prior persona and suggests not at all the history of French literature. She is instead a woman without substance whose hysteria protects her from the despair that Paul cannot escape. In this sense, Paul is anti-psychiatric, determined to push through to new possibilities because he has clearly long ago exhausted most of the others, evident when we hear of his numerous past professions including as a boxer and journalist. Paul is a figure coinciding with anti-psychiatry without at all being a follower of it. Brando's remarks about us all acting could easily be a Laing comment and Tyler Parker has written very well of the 'Psychodrama', which sees in fifties acting, in theatre and film, similarities with radical therapy, with Tyler noting, "the value of the concept of the Psychodrama is to show us a theatrical [or cinematic] motif that is a direct key to social truth." In this sense Jeanne is closer to someone from the French New Wave or cinema verite: one who sees her identity less as exploratory than performative. If Brando can say that we are all acting and the point is to find in the performance the social truth Tyler invokes, then Schneider might agree but from a different perspective, seeing Jeanne as someone who believes in the energy of the performance rather than that truth is the thing. The documentary she makes (with none other than the personification of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Pierre Leaud, as the boyfriend and filmmaker) isn't about seeking the truth (undeniably an important aspect of verite cinema) but performing a role, even if part of that role is killing Paul in a mock death that happens to be real. She kills him as if she is in a film, which of course she is
When we talk of consolidatory consolation it resides in seeing the work as a tension point which can acknowledge complication and contradiction without feeling obliged to resolve it. Jeanne seems freer than Paul yet it is Paul who seeks freedom. Like many a New Wave character, like Michel in Breathless, Nana in Vivre sa vie, Pierrot and Marianne in Pierrot le fou, Catherine in Jules et Jim, Jeanne is free but freedom in the New Wave was often a precursor to an early death: many of the nouvelle vague films ended on murder or suicide even if the general tone of the films was often buoyant rather than bleak. As Gilles Deleuze says, "in these we see the birth of a race of charming, moving characters who are hardly concerned by the events which happen to them even treason, even death..." (Cinema 1: The Movement Image) The characters sought to be free and found, in the logic of their wish, the consequences of a premature demise. Bertolucci absorbs the New Wave into his aesthetic as he has absorbed Marx and Freud, but just as in The Conformist he famously gave the professor, whom central character Clerici kills, the phone number of Godard, so here he reverses the New Wave trope of the early death by having the youthful shooting the mature: by having 20-year-old Jeanne killing the 45-year-old Paul, by having the psychologically complex and complicated older figure getting taken out by someone who looks like she hasn't figured out the consequences of any of her actions. But while Paul is working through a combination of grief, despondency, desire and the wear and tear of an ageing body that already has a prostate problem, Jeanne needn't be working through anything at all.
But that doesn't mean the unconscious isn't constantly making decisions on her behalf and hence we return again to the ending, and why we see it as hysterical. Bertolucci isn't afraid of Freudian interpretations, noting that "she shoots him with a gun that belongs to her father at the same moment that he put her father's hat on his head. So in a sense she kills own father, too." (Rolling Stone) Bertolucci also wonders whether she kills him because she is too bourgeois. A hysterical response can accept both without the character acknowledging either. She wouldn't necessarily think he isn't bourgeois enough and it is unlikely when he puts her father's hat on his head that this is such a dishonourable thing to do that she has to kill him. We aren't in the world of motivated action; the type of killing that comes when one character notices another has a gun in their pocket, or when the villain announces that he murdered the hero's wife. Such clear motives demand no interpretation on our part and no unconscious drive on the character's. However, to understand Jeanne is to comprehend a little of Freud without overly applying a meaning onto the film. We want only to understand an aspect of the master's thinking. When Freud says speaking of an hysteric that "she was in the habit of muttering a few words to herself which seemed as though they arose from the same train of thought that was occupying her mind", he also adds that these absences had as their starting point the position "of a girl at her father's sick-bed." (Two Short Accounts of Psychoanalysis) At the end of Last Tango in Paris, the camera retreats from Paul's dead body on the balcony and towards Jeanne who has the gun in her hand and says as if preparing her alibi that he followed her in the streets, that she didn't know his name and that he tried to rape her. Yet this is less the alibi offered than a mind elsewhere being observed, the hysterical person whose train of thought suggests someone absent from the situation. The ending makes no sense as a film conclusion indicating the person has sought revenge or sought to defend themselves. By mixing up the two, by making the ending unclear in dramatic terms but provocative in psychosexual terms, Bertolucci offers us a film that finds a place between the world of film and filming the world, as if too many films avoid the tension point between the two by settling for the generically criminal or the melodramatically realistic: by showing us the villainous motive or the tragic plight of a person caught in a desperate situation.
The ending brings together well the director's Freudian/Marxism and pushes into the anti-psychiatric as we may wonder with Bertolucci whether she rejects him not only because he masquerades momentarily as the father but also because it may show how absurd the attempt to become the father happens to be for this man who has no means of his own. Everything we have seen earlier in the documentary on Jeanne's life indicates wealth and comfort, from the nanny who is still part of the family to the story about the family dog who could always recognise the rich from the poor and was trained to distinguish the smell of an Arab. The house itself is expansive and full of antiques; her best friend has already married a pharmacist and has two kids. We might see Jeanne's hysterical reaction not only as a psychoanalytic response to Paul's momentary mimicking of the father, but also a socio-economic awareness of Paul's inadequacy as a provider, with Jeanne earlier asking dismissively where are they going to live: in Paul's flophouse?
Bertolucci's ending isn't clear and some might say it relies too much on interpretation (our notion of hysteria) rather than on understanding. In understanding we merely need to watch the film carefully to comprehend its meaning; but a film like Last Tango in Paris, like many a film of the period that is also interested in tension points, insists on interpretation demands that the viewer doesn't so much find the meaning as contribute to the making of it. Last Tango in Paris has become of course a scandal all over again as some misunderstood remarks by Bertolucci have been seized upon to turn the film into a terrible work of moral degeneration, that it should never have been made and that now its release ought to be suppressed. Such neo-puritanism doesn't take place in a court of law but on social media, often with very little evidence and a complete rejection of the counter-argument. This isn't the place to go into these arguments (though a good place to start might be reading a mid-seventies interview with Schneider on Rogerebert.com), but it is a position that shows little interest in tension point aesthetics, in ambiguity and interpretation, and looks instead for a moral template to be swiftly applied to errant works of art. It is often a version of the affective fallacy as moral turpitude: how do I feel about a work of art and if I feel bad in the viewing of it, must it then not be without value? We believe that Last Tango in Paris remains a very important work indeed, and might view the hysterical response of Jeanne at the conclusion as evidence of a certain bourgeois response that is being practised all over again by those who are determined to put to the stake films that are so radically determined to call into question the social expectations we live by.
© Tony McKibbin