Major spoilers included.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.