Can you escape the pain of existence by avoiding interpretations of it? Two people make the attempt in 1972's Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Parigi), a beautiful film by Bernardo Bertolucci, who passed away yesterday.
Paul (Marlon Brando) is a 48 year old man whose wife recently committed suicide and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is a woman in her early twenties, just about to be married. As Paul and Jeanne begin a sexual relationship, neither tells the other any of this, omitting even their names, at Paul's insistence. Their experiment transpires in an apartment where the two met by chance when both were looking it over, thinking of renting it.
A late product of New Wave filmmaking, Last Tango in Paris is arguably a commentary on New Wave films much as early New Wave films were commentaries on traditional filmmaking. Jeanne's fiancé, Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud), is a filmmaker who bears some resemblance to Francois Truffaut, and he ambushes Maria at a train station with a film crew, only then informing her he wants to make a film of her life. She's upset but she goes along with it. In a stark contrast to her relationship with Paul, everything about her and her past is documented for interpretation by Thomas.
As Jeanne takes Thomas and the film crew around her grandmother's property, where she grew up, she explains the surrounding woods were her jungle when she was a child. She immediately becomes upset upon finding a group of boys defecating in the bushes--what a horrible thing to do in "my jungle" she says. It's her interpretation of the place that makes what the boys are doing seem horrible, though the boys likely had no particularly bad intentions.
Paul is dealing with the funeral arrangements for his wife, Rosa, with the help of her mother (Maria Michi) and he becomes angry when she wants a priest involved. Naturally, she explains, she wants the funeral to be religious, but he angrily points out the church doesn't take a kind view of suicide. Of course he's right; even if the priest tactfully avoids saying anything, the interpretation will underlie everything.
Paul doesn't know why Rosa committed suicide and the absence of meaning is clearly tortuous for him. Maybe it's an attempt to stop the compulsive interpretor in his brain that he initiates the experiment with Jeanne.
But the mutually agreed upon interpretations of reality shared by society can't be avoided for long, reaching a state of nature proves an elusive dream again. There are too many discernible signifiers. Paul's an American, which Jeanne frequently brings up. They both inevitably start sharing little stories from their pasts; Paul rebukes her for talking about her grandfather's soldier uniform. Paul represents another side of the New Wave artistic impulse; the subversive prankster instinct that compelled Godard to cut pieces of the score randomly from Vivre sa vie to remind the audience how they're being emotionally manipulated. In the real world, Paul takes Jeanne to a dance hall where there's a tango competition while he mockingly delivers stuffy flirtatious lines in an English accent. The two eventually share an impromptu dance to the outrage of the competitors and spectators. It's too vulgar, too natural.
It has something of the uninhibited sexual relationship the two had in the apartment. So it's not surprising Jeanne is suddenly so afraid of everything that happened before and anything that might happen next.
The end of the movie is in a way similar to Godard's Breathless--outside that apartment, outside that bubble of uninterpreted humanity, the presence of the collective human interpretation is too much for the woman to bear, though Jeanne is much more conflicted about it than Patricia seems to be.
The film is justly lauded for Vittorio Storaro's cinematography and the performances by the two leads. Bertolucci's cinematic voice is obviously the biggest influence, though, and few artists can claim to have made something so simultaneously sensual and contemplative.
Twitter Sonnet #1179
Quartets of lines together mark the eye.
In pointing edges fold the corners dark.
A thinner blanched the walls without a lie.
A back was scratched to strip the tree of bark.
A march of metal feet have shaped the case.
Resounding tones collapse the golden cave.
Beyond the solid, shadows shape the base.
A marble set was all the gods could save.
A destined cup of tea arrived enlarged.
Entire rooms were filled with giant brains.
The halls and porches too were sore surcharged.
Expanding metal rails could take the strains.
A greyish scarf envelops pools to see.
Reflected journeys play on sounding sea.