What She Saw In You
by LAURA HOOBERMAN
In the opening scene of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango In Paris, we bear witness to a hunched and graying Marlon Brando pulling at the edges of a camel-colored overcoat and screaming a succinct plea to the ceiling of the overpass that creates a line between his body and the evening Parisian sky. Against the mounting noise of the metro moving overhead, he shouts, “holy fuck,” matching its mechanic droll and squeal decibel for decibel. To his right ambles by a beautiful young woman draped in white fur, the softness of her face punctuated by the brim of a black wool hat. Upon that brim, blossoming flowers writhe against her forehead. She pushes ahead of him, looks back, disturbed.
They find each other again, almost impossibly, in a phone booth and then, again, in a squalid and abandoned apartment. They listlessly discuss their considerations for renting the space and dance about one another in a grotesque courtship. He pulls her toward him, and, against the fraying wallpaper, fucks her. When she moves to tell him her name, he stops her.
This apartment becomes the battleground of their intimacy. They meet here, and under the weakly protective guise of anonymity, engage in expansive bouts of sexual experimentation. Their intertwined shadows on the floor are filmed as browns against gold. She is shown frequently, and pointlessly, topless. Their conversations are punctured by his refusal to discuss the past and her pervasive frustration with his abrasiveness and palpable misery.
We discover their histories only through peripheral plotlines that bleed outward from their shared, ethereal existence within the flat. He, Paul, is an American living in Paris whose wife’s suicide left saccharine splashes of blood all over the bathroom of their shared home. He returns briefly to find the stains still there – vast and impermeable. We watch him move through shadowy high-rises and the shadowed urban streets. His grief seems complex and boundless, but he wraps it in tight, neat violences. To his wife’s corpse, drenched in flowers, dressed funereally, he whimpers, “it took you 35 cents and a cheap razor to get out of our marriage.”
She, Jeanne, has a fiancé who shadows her with a film crew in a fashion that suggests proto-reality television. He observes her through this detached, cinematic lens and imparts upon her manipulative and self-absorbed abuses. Her first love from youth was her cousin, a prodigious piano player with whom she once engaged in mutual masturbation beneath suburban oak trees.
While the film lingers about the spectrum of Paul’s emotional deterioration, it lingers, with almost equal fascination, on Jeanne’s physicality, the shapes her body takes against the background. She is shown, in one scene, thrashing wildly against her fiancé in tense combat as the metro rushes by. We sense that her body exists as the plaything for these volatile men, that not only is she designed to be looked at, but also to be pummeled, debauched, almost in the pursuit of discerning a boundary that does not exist.
In the film’s most notorious scene, Paul sodomizes her with a stick of butter while sputtering forth gibbering phrases that hint disjointedly at incestuous taboo. In another, his dirty talk features the imagery of dead and dying pigs. There seems to be little meaning to it. After some time passes, she cannot help but wonder if they’re in love.
The archetypal love story progresses from anonymity to intimacy to either consummate togetherness or heartbreak. Paul and Jeanne waver, with pressing immediacy and reckless confusion, between anonymity and intimacy. The film occupies this territory of extremism, brought into existence within the decrepit apartment in which they both touch and recoil from one another. At one point, laying pressed against him, she whispers, “it’s beautiful not knowing anything.” This line exists at the crux of the film; it represents the lure and possibility of pure escapism, the erasure of both the profound and minute elements of identity. What Paul and Jeanne know of one another are unspoken truths that emerge from physical and visceral relations in the wake of extreme vulnerability. This is problematic, because these are terms we use when talking about love.
Aesthetics appear to my mind a more immutable and digestible force than ethics. One could watch the film on mute, and, surprisingly, in many instances find its sepia-toned intimacies and intimations more beautiful than vulgar. In one scene, Jeanne and Paul are in an elevator after she has abandoned her fiancé, and she lifts a lace and white wedding dress up to reveal shadeless brown thighs. The light is soft and flickering. They are drawn thus in a dizzying escalation upwards. He accepts her physicality and its implications into his encumbered arms. You consider the whirl of filth and havoc out of which such a rare moment of tenderness arises. You do wonder, briefly, if perhaps love is not only this much closeness, but exactly this much brutality.
If it is, it’s a sort of shit brand of love. And the film isn’t a love story. It’s a story about grief and need and the rare breed of expansiveness that has arisen within their contained and artificial reality. Paul’s single mandate of anonymity allows implicitly for all other forms of linguistic and behavioral freedom, and thus the space in which they exist is infused with not only debauchery but also liberation. For diffusely emotional reasons, they are continuously compelled toward one another. You think about that. You think about her, the perplexity she suffers with him. It’s much easier to ignore someone who ignores you than someone who actively treats you poorly.
The film itself doesn’t think about her much. The magnitude of Brando’s celebrity rests in the film’s forefront, and Paul’s withering psychosis occupies the bulk of our thematic focus. Jeanne is sketched less deliberately, existing fundamentally as the springboard against which Paul reacts and as a point of our aesthetic attention. Any indication of strength on her part is drawn as the sort of feistiness found charming by misogynistic men, rather than referring back to any fundamental fierceness or resolve. I find this personally sort of problematic, because I want to relate to Jeanne. On a certain level, with only tepid approval, I do relate to her. She and I are members of the club of girls who feel big and confusing things for destructive men.
I sort of want to vindicate her, to draw her into focus. I can imagine being her. Imagine being young and inexperienced and having a body that appears to you as a map of questions yet to be answered. Imagine being stalked by a man who has accessed the darkest parts of you, who grabs you and demands your attention after you have ostensibly tried to break things off. “That was one thing, in the apartment,” he tells you. “Now we can start with the love.” He brings you to an archaic ballroom and vacillates wildly between being charming and cruel. He pulls you onto the dance floor. Each set of bodies that surround you, you think, represents some unique possibility of love. The effect of existing among them is dizzying. You realize your profound differentness from these forms that float into one another and float in and out of your periphery. You do not have what they have. This man holding onto your waist, pulling at you, is dangerous.
You find yourself in an apartment with this unknowable man. You want to murder this void of distilled emotion he has created within you. The boundary between your interiority and external reality has become distorted and strange. If you don’t pull the trigger, where is there to go? And if you do pull it, who have you become?
It is discomfiting to exist in her head, to consider the extent to which emotions can be widly untamed and un-categorizable. The first time I watched the film, I felt primaily disturbed by the images and dialogue that are designed to be disturbing, revolting. What makes the film an uncomfortable watch is what makes it resist a softer analysis, but there was for me certain softness to the film, a light ethical pulse. Upon finishing Last Tango In Paris a second time, all I could think was that it is a truly terrifying thing to mistreat one another.
"Dream Sequence" - Tythe (mp3)
"Careless Woman" - Tythe (mp3)