Saturday, May 14, 2011

Last Tango in Youth, with Death

Major spoilers included.

Infamous butter fingers precede Last Tango in Paris. I was hardly expecting the screen to be slathered in it, of course, but such cultural definitions of a film inevitably colours expectations of it as a whole: not narratively, but emotionally, certainly. So anticipating a dark erotic thriller, instead unfolded a funny, melancholy, farcical tragedy. Bernardo Bertolucci's film is that occasional piece of cinema that manufactures its situations in such a completely barefaced manner that you have to allow for the unreality of the formation to comprehend the emotional truths that are revealed as it progresses.

Last Tango... has many obvious dichotomies - male and female, youth and death, America and France - but it never feels like these are being forcefully played against each other, despite the chemistry and friction between the central characters. Marlon Brando forces Maria Schneider into his life, and though the initial bizarreities of their meeting seem completely foreign to my own sensibilities, the whole project of the film is really occupying some kind of gulf between frankness and mystery. Schneider might lie there, her bare breast filling half the screen, a carefree smile on her face, but the question lying (metaphorically) next to her is whether Brando's insistence on their not sharing names could ever actually mean that they don't know each other as well as Schneider and her fiancee Jean-Pierre Leaud do.

It's hard, in a way, to take thoughtful resolutions as any kind of truth in a film where Brando monologues about climbing up the "ass of death". But personally, the fact that Last Tango in Paris has such an absurdist, ridiculous way about its characterization makes it a fresher pill to swallow. Sobering conclusions feel more organic when the film doesn't expunge the unbalanced possibilities for lunacy and laughter and sexual abandon that might come from dealing with a great tragedy.

Perhaps it's because, as I become older - now, almost 23, I can certainly be classed as an adult - I don't feel "grown up" in the way I think children expect they eventually will. When you're a child, adulthood feels like an entirely separate plane of existence. It might be something you look forward to or something you want to keep away from as long as possible (I'm afraid the time period is pretty much set, kids), but the world of responsibility is a foreign one to the majority of children. So you expect some sort of switch to flick in your head at some point, and so suddenly you're an "adult", capable of coping with managing money and maintaining relationships and facing the long walk towards death. Alright, so I must have realised at some point in my teenage years that it was hardly going to be that simple, but I still didn't come to the obvious conclusions that I'd have to actively learn and struggle to do these things, and that childish impulses don't just get washed out of your brain, and that you have to figure out whether any of that attitude can be integrated into your existence as a functioning adult.

The point in relation to Last Tango in Paris is that it understands this crisis. Provoked by his wife's suicide, Marlon Brando spins into a head-space where he wants to abandon responsibility. Adult virility mixes irrepressibly with his infantile spirit and he throws himself without warning at Maria Schneider - who, for her own reasons, cannot resist, and seems to engage just as wilfully as he does. Brando's insistence that they not use their names, or indeed discuss their lives outside of the apartment, suggests his longing for a childhood where freedom reigns, where friendships are pure enjoyment, not emotionally demanding. Names, other people, locations - they're all restrictions of the world of responsibility.

Maria Schneider happily engages in all this, because, so close to her own childhood, she can still sense it and recall what it was like; but her sexual encounters with Brando also have the allure of the freedom from childhood, from the restrictions imposed on her - restrictions that Brando's nostalgia seems to have forgotten. And the whole apartment block seems to be a place free of rules. The landlady, a manically cackling black woman, has no idea when people move out and in; and rats run free, Brando morbidly teasing Schneider when she finds a dead rodent lying on their mattress.

Reality is inescapable, of course. Ironically, the freedom of their sexual relationship must be contained if it wants to be free - within the apartment, still surrounded by the city, still bound by their lives outside so that maybe, when they arrive, the other isn't there to be free with them. And though they are happier together, they are ultimately not entirely free while together; and Brando realises that he doesn't want to be free, but wants to be with Schneider, to know her name and everything about her.

So the ending. Brando's foetal body, dead on the balcony, is the infantile frozen in immobility. For Schneider, it is her enjoyment of freedom simultaneously crystallized and consigned to the past. Brando will always be her reminder of the childish freedom she enjoyed, hence why he dies in that particular position. But dead, and, as she deliriously rationalizes, without name and identity to her, Schneider can 'forget' him, can proceed to adulthood and responsibility without guilt, for all she did was shoot a stranger intruding into her private adult space.

The film itself almost sees the linear regression of Brando, indulging in ever-more vulgar infantile behaviour and language, with big boy words like "pig-fucking" and smirking puns like "my hap-penis". By the time of the titular scenes in the dancehall, his relationship to Schneider has shifted to a maternal one: "I get to milk you twice a day. How about that?" His final desperation to live with her, then, is not wanting to love and care for her, but to be loved and cared for by her, his attachment relentless in the same way a baby craves for its mother's breast.

Schneider's inconsistent attitude towards Brando starts going batshit in the final part of the film, but it's not bad direction or Schneider losing grip of her performance. Her dilemma is exactly that of the young adult, stranded between looking over their shoulder at the irresponsibility of childhood and looking forward to the allure of adulthood's new adventures. While she's happy with Brando, it's because he is giving her a glimpse of both at once - childish games and newfound sexual liberation. But then she becomes engaged to Leaud and faces the responsibility of marriage, and is simultaneously confronted by Brando's growing attachment to her, which is in itself both a reflection of Leaud's demands and the allusion to the further responsibility of motherhood.

Our last moments with her are her disorientated rationalizations, and so we are left with the question of how she'll function now, free of the man whose name she may not know, but will perhaps be forever tied to all the stronger for that mystery. Their last tango fittingly ends in a sharp shock of tragedy, characters frozen in separation, but forever transformed by their dance.

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