1973 / Best Director

Film #580: Last Tango in Paris (1973)

As we move on in our latest exploration of world cinema films to be nominated for Best Director we come across a bit of a curio in Last Tango in Paris. This is a film set in France, directed by an Italian and starring one of the biggest American actors in the world in the form of Marlon Brando. I was thinking about whether to include this in this leg of the blog, primarily as Brando speaks as much English as he does French in the film, but ultimately the Parisian setting and general look of the film felt like it fit amongst the works of Truffaut and Fellini.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film stars Brando as Paul; an American ex-pat and hotelier whose wife has recently committed suicide causing him to sink into somewhat of a depression. As the film goes on we also learn that Paul’s wife was having an affair just before she died leading to him having even more conflicted feelings about her death. Playing opposite Brando in Last Tango is nineteen-year old Maria Schneider who plays recently engaged Parisian girl Jeanne. Jeanne and Paul meet when both look at the same small apartment with the latter eventually snapping up the property which the pair then use to house their secret sexual trysts. However Paul puts down a rule early on that they’re not to talk about their names or their pasts which frustrates Jeanne who wants to communicate with her new lover. Away from Paul, Jeanne also participates in several scenes in which she is being filmed by her amateur director fiancée Thomas who looks to be creating an experimental picture of some kind. The final third of the film sees Paul abandon Jeanne before returning and revealing his background to his young lover. The titular last tango then takes place as the pair squabble in a dance studio before the film’s final shocking scenes occur which I for one didn’t see coming.

Last Tango in Paris was a film I knew little about going in other than the comments that Brando had made about it in the excellent documentary Listen to me Marlon. After doing a bit of research around the movie I realised that a lot of controversy had been raised over the way Schneider had been treated by Bertolucci especially during one of the film’s more shocking sexual scenes. Whilst I could go into detail about my thoughts on the matter instead I’m just going to talk about the film as a piece of cinema and whether or not it should have garnered a Best Picture nod to go alongside its Best Director nomination. In my opinion a lot of Last Tango felt quite meandering and the scenes between Paul and Jeanne in the apartment were some of my least favourite. Whilst artistically they worked, I felt they offered little in terms of story progression and I believe the film was better when they were separated. I very much enjoyed the scenes in which Paul was confronted by his wife’s former lover and this scene was enhanced by a great visual moment when it was revealed that she’d bought them the same dressing gown. Similarly compelling was Jeanne’s storyline involving her relationship with Thomas and her discussion about her childhood for her future husband’s film. However it’s the scenes at the tango competition that are where the film really flies as Paul and Jeanne attempt to communicate whilst various couples dance by them resulting in a great set piece. However this didn’t take away from the fact that this is a rather uneven piece of work possibly as Bertolucci based most of the films around his own sexual fantasy of having a relationship with a stranger with neither of them knowing the other’s name.

I know I keep writing this but I can see exactly why Last Tango didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination as it’s another film that’s artistically directed by Bertolucci but doesn’t have anything in the way of a compelling story that would hook the academy. That being said the film Last Tango would most likely replace would’ve been the forgettable romantic comedy A Touch of Class which itself didn’t really feel like an Oscar film. I feel the main issue may have been that a European film, in the form of Cries and Whispers, was already nominated for Best Picture so maybe Last Tango split the votes. Whilst Bertolucci would go onto get his Oscar for a more academy-friendly film in The Last Emperor, Last Tango would mark the last time Marlon Brando would receive a Best Actor nomination. Whilst I found his almost-silent portrayal of Paul was a good departure from Vito Corleone I felt that Schneider gave the more-rounded performance and deserved a least a nomination for Best Actress. Overall, although I did enjoy some elements of Last Tango in Paris, especially the two lead performances, I ultimately found it slow and meandering which I suppose it what happens when you try to make a film about your dreams and fantasies.

Next up is the continuation of our world cinema exploration of best director films as I once again head into the 1960s for a film that I know very little about at all, so please join me to see what I make of it.

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