Bernardo Bertolucci originally conceived “Last Tango in Paris” as a sequel to The Conformist,” with Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Marcello returning to Paris where, during the war, he had assassinated his former professor. When Marlon Brando replaced Trintignant, the project evolved into something both more and less than the film Bertolucci had envisioned. The connection to the earlier film was lost, and with it the depth of the character’s relationship to the city. Something new had emerged from the material, something primal that broke through conventional narrative like an errant personality from a normal child.
Marcello was gone, and Paul was here, walking beneath the elevated train, head tilted to the sky, cursing God. His wife had killed herself with a thirty-five cent razor in a tub fill of water, leaving him stricken in an unknowable universe. To escape the flurry of morbid activity following her death, Paul flees the flophouse bequeathed to him by his wife, and rents an unfurnished apartment where he discovers a young girl, Jeanne, who is also looking for a rental. So begins a love affair so full of cynicism, grief, and self-hatred that it annihilates the past.
Behind the embraces and the clashes of the death-riddled man and the blossoming girl is a dialectic between traditional cinema, personified by American actor Brando, and the French new wave, represented by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who plays Jeanne’s fiancé Tom, who follows her around with his amateur movie camera, like Godard with Anna Karina. The scenes with Paul in the flophouse with characters related to his wife, including her lover Marcel, her mother, and a prostitute who comes in the early morning to rent a room to ply her trade with a man whose wife has developed a fearful skin disease, are filmed with a classic certainty, while those in the apartment with Jeanne, as well as the scenes between Jeanne and Tom, have the improvised character of the modern films. There is one telling scene in which Jeanne and Tom discuss their impending marriage that climaxes with him throwing a life-saver with the word “L’Atalante” into the river. “L’Atalante” was a 1934 film directed by the 29-year old Jean Vigo, who died after its completion. It is a classic of French traditional cinema that is revered by the New Wave directors. The life-saver sinks in the water, perhaps representing the impossibility of such traditional things as marriage in the lives of such modern people as Jeanne and Tom, as well as the possibility of directors such as Godard to make anything with the lasting value of a “L’Atalante.”
Paul, too, is like a character from a classic film who has little chance of survival in this new world. He is only able to carry on the affair with Jeanne as long as he can conceal his identity. She is able to project any number of fantasies onto him, imagining him as a gangster or a soldier, anything but a middle-aged widower with a prostate like an Idaho potato who comes from an era that she has never known.
Brando was 49 years old when he made “Last Tango in Paris,” and it was his last appearance before letting himself bloat into the unrecognizable figure of his later years. He is the epitome of middle-aged sexuality, a little on the worn side but still vigorously virile. Unlike most actors, who attempt to establish audience identification by wearing emotional masks to represent certain universal states of being, Brando takes himself into deeper, more primordial places, where there are no masks, where nothing is representational, where emotion finds a physical form, and a true bond of empathy is hewn between actor and spectator, one not easily broken because we see on the actor’s face what we feel, in our most hidden places, to be our lost selves.