Last Tango in Paris: Revisiting Bertolucci and Brando’s X-Rated Film

last_tango_in_paris_posterBernardo Bertolucci wrote the screenplay for the 1972 provocative film, Last Tango in Paris, in collaboration with his editor, Franco Arcalli.  But he revised it considerably, based on the strong rapport and assistance from his star, Marlon Brando, then at the top of his game.

Some directors have been driven almost to distraction by Brando’s methods, his questioning approach to his material. But in this case, it was exactly what the director wanted. Bertolucci had prepared a detailed script with full dialogue, but he laid it aside whenever Brando wanted to bring his own interpretation to the part. Bertolucci was stimulated by the actor’s questioning of lines and motives. He felt that his association with Brando furthered his understanding of film making, particularly as it applies to acting.


last_tango_in_paris_10_brando_schneiderBrando plays Paul, a middle-aged American expatriate, who could not have been more different from other screen characters of Americans in Paris, glorified by both George Gershwin in Minnelli’s Oscar winning musical, American in Paris,” and the books by Ernest Hemingway and others.  Unlike Gene Kelly’s Jerry in the 1951 musical, who is upbeat, energetic, friendly, and romantic, Paul is confused, depressed, tortured, and abusive and sexually aggressive.  We meet him right after his wife Rosa had committed suicide.

Eager to escape the shabby hotel in which he lives, he finds an apartment close to the Eiffel Tower. Here he comes across a young girl, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who is also looking for an apartment to rent, when she marries in a week’s time her loving fiancé, Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud).  Jeanne is a young, modish, lively Parisienne, boasting a gorgeous body, especially breasts.  Fiancé Tom is a documentary director who follows her about Paris shooting as she prepares for the marriage. But in one of the film’s few contrivances, Tom never follows her to the empty apartment, even when she disappears for hours.  (I have always wondered what would have happened if he did pursue her).

last_tango_in_paris_9Within a very short period of time, Paul seduces Jeanne and embarks on a sexual tryst that lasts for three days. The two know nothing of each other, not even their names.  At first, their affair is a purely physical, isolated experience, and the apartment becomes, as Bertolucci intended, an island on which human relationship is examined, particularly the male sexual domination of the female.

Last Tango in Paris was shot in Paris from February to April. The editing process was much longer than the shoot, due to a great amount of footage, much of it based on improvisation. Expectations were high even before filming began, mostly because of Brando, now riding high with renewed interest in his career after winning his second Best Actor for The Godfather, shot by Coppola the previous year.


last_tango_in_paris_8_brandoAt 31, the genius director Bernardo Bertoluccii had made four good films (The Grim Reaper, Before the Revolution, Partner, and The Spider’s Strategy), and  one acknowledged masterpiece The Conformist, for which he won Best Director kudo from the prestigious  group, the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC).  All the Bertolucci films have been exhibited at major film festivals t great acclaim.

last_tango_in_paris_7_brando_schneiderProduced by Alberto Grimaldi as a joint enterprise of P.E.A. (Rome) and Les Artistes Associés (Paris), Last Tango in Paris encountered problems when it was shown to the Italian censors. The film contains explicit scenes of sexual intercourse and when it was viewed in New York by its distributors, United Artists, they agreed that some editing would be necessary before a general release campaign could be arranged.

last_tango_in_paris_6_brando_schneiderThe film world premiered as closing night of the New York Film Festival on October 14, 1972.  It was flown into the U.S. under guard from Rome, with provision for a single showing and then returned the next day. Italian law prohibits the showing of an Italian film abroad before it has passed the Italian censors, but an exception was granted in this instance.  In the end, the film was ruled not pornographic by an Italian court.

last_tango_in_paris_5_Brando_schneiderRichard Roud, who co-founded the New York Film Festival in 1963 and then served as its director for the next 25 years, later told me that, due to the film’s erotic contents and intensely realistic nature, the festival’s programmers speculated that it would probably embarrass and frighten some viewers as much as it would titillate others, not only because of its sexual material but also because of its provocative exploration of hot-button values.

last_tango_in_paris_4_brandoLast Tango in Paris made a stunning impact on the festival audience in New York.  Bertolucci received an ovation but at a party which followed the premiere, it became clear tight away that the film had disturbed and even shocked many of those who had seen it. The then influential critic, Pauline Kael wrote an extended rave review in the New Yorker, published on October 28, 1972, in which she described it as the one film that had made the strongest impression on her in 20 years as a critic.  Kael has expressed before admiration for Brando as an actor, his ability to draw directly from life and from himself.

last_tango_in_paris_3_brando_schneiderKael wrote: “We all know that movie actors often merge with their roles in a way that stage actors don’t, quite, but Brando did it even on the stage. Expressing a character’s sexuality makes new demands on an actor, and Brando has no trick accent to play with this time, and no putty on his face. It’s perfectly apparent that the role was conceived for Brando, using elements of his past as integral parts of the character. Bertolucci wasn’t surprised by what Brando did; he was ready to use what Brando brought to the role. And when Brando is a full creative presence on the screen, the realism transcends the simulated actuality of any known style of cinema vérité, because his surface accuracy expresses what’s going on underneath. He’s an actor; when he shows you something, he lets you know what it means.”

Bertolucci described the film as a tragic version of An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli’s MGM musical of 1951, an upbeat, colorful depiction of a young, hopeful painter (Gene Kelly), taken by the charming city and its limitless possibilities.

On another occasion, the director said teh film is “a form of deam,” in which the entire story is an Oedipal projection on the part of a young girl, only 19, infatuated with an older man, the age of her father.

Oscar Context:

The movie was released commercially on February 1, 1973, thus qualifying for that year’s Oscar considerations.


Paul (Marlon Brando)

Jeanne (Maria Schneider)

Concierge (Darling Legitimus)

Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud)

TV script girl (Catherine Sola)

TV cameraman (Mauro Marchetti)

TV sound engineer (Dan Diament)

TV assistant cameraman (Peter Schommer)

Catherine (Catherine Allegret)

Monique (Marie-Helene Breillat)

Mouchette (Catherine Breillat)

Rosa’s mother (Maria Michi),

Rosa (Veronica Lazare)

Marcel (Massimo Girotti)

President of tango jury (Mimi Pinson)



Alberto Grimaldi Production

Released by United Artists

Produced by Alberto Grimaldi

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Screenplay by Bernardo Bertolucci and Franci Arcalli

Director of Cinematography, Vittorio Storare

Musical score, Gato Barbieri