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On Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris

By Richard Jonathan

In Sprague’s list of his ten favourite films that he gives Marietta as she leaves him, Last Tango in Paris  is number 2.

Maria Schneider as Jeanne and Marlon Brando as Paul

An American in Paris. Forty-five. His wife has just committed suicide. He meets a girl in an empty apartment. They fuck. No words, no names. They meet again in the apartment. They fuck again. No names. Words, yes, but nothing personal. Sanctuary. Authenticity. Purity. But the energy of sex that rocks the spine trips the wire of memory. Paul: My father was a drunk. Whore-fucker, bar-fighter… My mother was very poetic, also a drunk, and my memories about when I was a kid are of her being arrested nude. And thus the parents enter the room, and Paul begins his regression, trying to become the invulnerable child it was impossible to be in reality. On some level Jeanne understands and goes along. She declares her love, she’s found her shining knight: I find this man. He’s you! You are that man!. But Paul’s not yet done with trying to undo the knot of love/hate that ties him to his past, and commands Jeanne to put two fingers there where he can obliterate ambivalence. She obeys. Then he disappears, leaving her devasted. Some time later he returns, and lays bare his love: I ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia. And now I’ve found you. And I love you. And that’s when she kills him.

Why? Why does she kill him precisely when he tells her that he loves her? Just how complex does feminine desire get? The Colonel had green eyes and shiny boots. I worshipped him. He was so handsome in his uniform. So said Jeanne of her long-dead father. And, as anyone familiar with heroines in nineteenth-century novel knows, one should never marry a girl with a dead father (see Helen Hayward, Never Marry a Girl with a Dead Father: Women’s Troubled Relationships in Realist Novels). Paul, twice Jeanne’s age and then some, dons her father’s cap and salutes her just before he declares his love. In killing Paul, Jeanne kills her father. Why? Because Paul-father’s love had removed all limits, making pleasure/pain infinite, and therefore unbearable.

Last Tango in Paris is a film about love as pharmakon: at once cure and poison, the promise of a new beginning and the impossibility of a fresh start.

Paul: You won’t be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. He looked death right in the face. From his isolation he reached out in love. And he found that love is colder than death.

EROS: SEX AND FANTASY
By Jessica Benjamin

What distinguishes the erotic—in interaction or representation—is the existence of an intersubjective space that both allows identification with the other and recognizes the non‑identity between the person, the  feeling, and the ‘thing’ (action) representing it. We cannot say that sadomasochistic fantasy is inimical to or outside the erotic, for where do we find sexuality that is free of the fantasy of power and surrender? Would sexuality exist without such fantasy? There is no erotic interaction without the sense of self and other exerting power, affecting each other, and such affecting is imme­diately elaborated in the unconscious in the more violent terms of infantile sexuality. But what makes sexuality erotic is the survival of the other throughout the exercise of power, which in turn makes the expression of power part of symbolic play.

Eros can play with, rather than be extinguished by, the de­struction performed by fantasy: when the experience of union can be contained symbolically and does not destroy the self; when shar­ing and attunement are not destroyed by the other’s outsideness and difference; when separate minds can share similar feelings. Eros unites us and in this sense overcomes the sense of otherness that afflicts the self in relation to the world and its own body. But this transcendence is possible only when one simultaneously recognizes the separateness of some outside body in all its particular sensuality, with all its particular difference.

 

From ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Notes on Sexuality and Aggression, with Special Reference to Pornography’, in Jessica Benjamin, Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference (Yale University Press, 1995), 205-207.

BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI ON LAST TANGO IN PARIS
Interview by Gideon Bachmann, 1973

Originally, I wanted to make a film about a couple, about a relationship between two people. As I began to work and felt the film taking shape, I realized I was making a film about solitude. I believe that this is its most profound content: solitude.

The encounter of Paul and Jeanne ends up being an encounter of forces pulling in different directions; the kind of encounter of forces which exists at the base of all political clashes. Brando, initially rather mysterious, manages to upset the girl’s bourgeois lifestyle, at least at the beginning, by force of his mystery and obvious search for authenticity. His way of making love to her is practically didactic. Didactic in the sense that he seeks the roots of human behavior in that moment, the moment after his wife’s suicide, when he has reached a peak and a dead-end at the same time. He believes that he must seek absolute authenticity in a relationship, and this, I feel, gives the encounter its political sense.

I still feel I am looking for the very specific light that is typical and expressive of every feeling and of every epoch, and I still seek the very specific way of representing how time passes—that particular, psychological passage of time that gives a film its style. Perhaps it is a matter of percorso, of how a man moves through time, in the historical and in the practical, daily sense. That, in fact, is what holds Tango together, as I see it now: Brando’s retreat from being a man of 45 back to being an adolescent and finally dying like a foetus. At the beginning of the film he is super-virile, desperate but determined in his despair. Look at how he fucks the girl the first time. But slowly he almost loses his virility. At a certain point he makes the girl sodomize him: going backwards, he has arrived at the anal stage. Let’s say, the sadistic‑anal stage. Then he goes back even further and arrives in the womb of Paris, dying with mother Paris all around him, her rooftops, TV‑aerials, her grey, grabbing anonymity.

Things are ‘erotic’ only before relationships develop; the strongest erotic moments in a relationship are always at the beginning, since relationships are born from animal instincts. But every sexual relationship is condemned. It is condemned to lose its purity, its animal nature; sex becomes an instrument for saying other things. In the film, Paul and Jeanne try to maintain this purity by avoiding psychological and romantic entanglement, by not telling each other who they are, etc., but it proves impossible, since dependencies of various types develop.

Every relationship is condemned to change. Perhaps it can improve, but generally it deteriorates. It cannot remain just itself. Thus there is always a sense of loss. It is this sense of loss that makes me use the word ‘condemned’.

I do not believe that relationships can develop on a romantic level because there isn’t really a reason why they should: history, reality, are anything but romantic. And a relationship must feed on reality in order to continue.

 

From an interview with Bertolucci by Gideon Bachmann in Gerard, Fabien S. et al., Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews (University Press of Mississipppi, 2000), 92-99.