I Can't Believe it's Butter
On one level "Last Tango in Paris" feels like some huge self indulgence by director Bernardo Bertolucci, its artsy and breaks boundaries with its use of sex and nudity gaining itself a notoriety for several sex scenes including the famous butter scene. But get past all of this, all of the nudity and sex scenes and "Last Tango in Paris" has a deeper context one about grief, need and how two people deal with these feelings. It's also a movie made brilliant by the performance of Marlon Brando, delivering brutality, emotion and even fragility which causes you to carry on watching when it seems all a little strange.
Whilst viewing a Paris apartment, young Parisienne Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meets Paul (Marlon Brando - The Score), a mysterious American who she finds in the apartment. Grieving from the sudden suicide of his wife Paul and Jeanne embark on a steamy sexual affair, meeting up in the apartment where they escape the outside world to the extent that they know nothing about each other, not even each others names. But their relationship affects them as Paul continues to struggle with the loss of his wife and Jeanne prepares to marry her film making boyfriend.
One of the strangest and most spectacular things about "Last Tango in Paris" is the minimal storyline, almost devoid of anything superfluous. From the start as we are introduced to Paul after his wife's suicide there is indeed very little back story and as he becomes acquainted with Jeanne in a scene which borders close to being rape we know little about either of them. It's an impacting opening which makes you wonder what is going on and this continues through out as back stories slowly unwind so we realise that Paul is struggling to deal with his grief where Jeanne although in a relationship feels needed through Paul's brutal desire for sex. It feels all rather strange, all rather a bit too indulgent as the movie almost focuses on the sexual encounters which happen in the rented apartment, becoming more risque and brutal as the movie moves along.
Indeed the sex scenes are probably one of two things which "Last Tango in Paris" is known for, the other being the sublime performance from Marlon Brando. It has to be said that the sexual content, the frequent nudity is quite shocking. That opening sequence which culminates in the almost rape scene barely scratches the surface when it comes to the risque nature of the movie with the infamous butter scene where Paul uses the dairy product to lubricate a certain part of Jeanne's anatomy really making you draw breath at how far director Bernardo Bertolucci pushed the boundaries whilst making the movie.
But away from all the risque sex, nudity and Bertolucci's artistic flourishes the underlying storyline is actually quite fascinating. On one hand you have Paul who has become brutalized by life itself that the only way he can feel anything is through the brutal sexual encounters. On the other you have Jeanne who goes along with the brutal relationship because it fills a void in her life not fulfilled by her boyfriend. It all feels a little strange until Paul's emotion well over in a scene where he talks to his dead wife. The trouble is that whilst this examination of emotions is fascinating it is often hard to look past the obvious sexually explicit content.
Of course aside from all of this the other thing which "Last Tango in Paris" is known for is the performance from Marlon Brando, many of which say was his last great performance on the big screen. Brando certainly delivers such an intense performance that you can't help but be mesmerised as he switches from being brutal to slightly fragile. Like with the movie as a whole you wonder so much about the character of Paul especially after the opening scenes yet by the time the movie ends you feel like you understand him, well kind of.
Alongside Brando and seriously over shadowed is Maria Schneider who other than often appearing naked does at least create an interesting character of this needy young woman who is willing to go along with Paul's acts of sexual brutality. It's a shame she is over shadowed by Brando because Schneider doesn't do a bad job and when she cries during that infamous butter scene you get a sense that those were real tears.
What this all boils down to is that "Last Tango in Paris" is an interesting movie. On the surface it does seem a little self indulgent with all the artistic flourishes and sex scenes but scratch beneath that surface and there is a fascinating examination of grief and need delivered in a very unusual almost raw fashion. It's worth watching just to see Brando delivering such an amazing performance as he goes from brutal to slight vulnerability as he processes his feelings of grief.