Last Tango in Paris is an expressionist film in the line of Fritz Lang, Jean-Luc Godard, and Paddy Chayefsky. To admit this at the outset is to minimize any risk of understanding the phenomenon too quickly. Expressionism, after all, seeks to distort. What is lost in fidelity to fact is gained in the imaginative truth of the form: or so we are asked to believe. Lang and Godard belong to the small group of commanding figures in the history of cinema precisely because they knew the character of their enterprise. The refracting lens, throughout Lang’s German period and in Godard through the first half of Weekend, is altogether under control. On the other hand, Chayefsky is an expressionist by default, a naturalist bent out of shape, and beyond redemption by the facts.
I would say that Bernardo Bertolucci, the director of Last Tango, falls somewhere between these poles of genius and intolerable carry-on: much, but not all, of what jangles in his latest film was calculated for effect. The film as we have it is certainly very far from being a masterpiece or a breakthrough. Those kindly and influential critics who struck the note of unfettered praise were speaking, surely, in deference to its promise rather than its performance, and though they are to be commended as, in some obscure way, friends of the art, the continuing success of Chayefsky ought to be a warning that generosity of this order can go too far. Still, when we have allowed for the rallying cries which an ambitious and somewhat botched piece of work may be expected to attract, what accounts for the fervor of our public acceptance of Last Tango? The film poses many questions and there are those who will want to think it poses them honestly. It explores and, while appearing to document, exploits our divided conscience about sex. Paul and Jeanne are footloose in Paris: an American expatriate of about fifty, familiar in type as the outcast writer or actor, and a smart native bourgeoise, quick with the arrogance of youth but still on friendly terms with Maman. Paul stands under a bridge and shuts his ears as a train passes overhead, Jeanne does a jump-rope step over the broom of a street sweeper. They meet in an apartment they are both looking to rent, and they circle each other slowly, warily, like jungle beasts savoring the scent of an encounter. The phone rings, a wrong number in this empty place, but Paul and Jeanne hang onto the extensions and listen for the sounds of their breathing. Paul walks over to Jeanne, asks if she will take the apartment for herself, warns her she had better think fast, then sweeps her off her feet in the classic over-the-threshold pose, sets her delicately against the wall, and most indelicately mounts her. After the great first act they fall apart panting, and later, downstairs, Paul indicates that they will have occasion to meet again. As they do. No names, Paul will insist, they can know nothing of each other’s lives. Ple...
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