While Last Tango in Paris’s place in film history is undoubtedly secure, the justification for that status is not quite as certain. While the film has memorable patches, they are not so remarkable or unique that they alone assure its reputation. Brando’s performance as Paul, an expatriate American in Paris grieving over the suicide of his wife, is intermittently powerful, but again, not so forceful that it alone can explain the film’s reputation. Besides, few films are remembered only because of a remarkable performance.
Inevitably, Tango is likely to be remembered because of the furor that arose around it, sparked by Pauline Kael’s famous review heralding it as an overwhelming masterpiece that broke new ground in the depiction of sexuality. Nonetheless in retrospect we can recognize that it was just one of several films released at roughly the same time that expanded the limits of what could be shown on screen. Brando’s participation made it the most famous, and in that sense it may deserve some credit for enabling movies to deal with sex with greater emotional intensity, but whether it did much more in that regard than several other films is debatable.
There simply was just so much publicity around Tango that anyone claiming to care about film was expected to have an opinion on it. You didn’t have to like it, but you did have to acknowledge its significance. That attention lingers as a critical legacy, a kind of balloon of hot air that has never been pricked. Viewed dispassionately, the film is very uneven and at times downright bad. The most egregious moments are the irritating, pointless scenes between Brando’s sex partner, Jeanne (Maria Schneider) and her fiancé Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud). Sub-Godardian doodles, they feel more idiotic with each viewing. Brando’s scenes with Marcel (Massimo Girotti), his dead wife’s lover, are differently mannered and obtuse. They succeed (barely) only because Brando and Girotti punch through Bertolucci’s attitudinizing to give their interactions some emotional truth.
The film certainly cemented Bertolucci’s reputation as the most important Italian director of his generation. That recognition is double-edged, however, since the film’s weaknesses are just as distinctively his as the strengths. The tango sequence near the end is a good example, combining Bertolucci’s incomparable sense of movement, rhythm and music with the overwrought caricatures that mar many of his films. The sequence’s awkward, arty posturing reveals the strain of hammering home an attenuated metaphor.
From such over-reaching, to Brando’s agonized performance, to the unflinching sexuality, Tango demands to be taken seriously and sometimes warrants the attention. The results are always unstable, but to grant achievement on mixed evidence is not exactly rewarding good intentions over poor realization, for there is much of value in the film. To be overpowered by Tango, however, requires either a predisposition to it, or a heavy dose of wishful thinking. The bad doesn’t exactly cancel the good, but the virtues don’t override the flaws either.