Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a girl barely out of her teens, wanders the very same streets in search of an apartment. While on the way to the station, where her boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) must shortly arrive, Jeanne decides to check out a vacant flat. On the top floor she dips from room to room, each musty with disuse. Then, like a coming-of-age, Paul looms out of the shadow, sending a nervous thrill down Jeanne's spine. Since both have a desire to rent this well-positioned flat they'll have to come to an accommodation; let the verbal sparring begin. After a season spent circling, Paul suddenly leaves - or pretends to. With no apparent cause they grab hold of each other and have fumbled sex hard against the wall. So it begins, a pattern of meetings disjoint from the outside world.
Close to a synonym for sexual provocation, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that Last Tango in Paris does not live up to its reputation. Neither the quantity nor the explicitness of the sex scenes shock today, indeed it's hard to see how they (in themselves) ever did so. In Bernardo Bertolucci's hands it's not the sex itself that is difficult to handle, it's the context and the manner in which it's filmed. The total lack of erotic charge between Paul and Jeanne, the absence of passion, ensures that they connect for one thing only; pure animal, rutting sex. Without the cushion of love to soften the blow, this fact is inescapable. To ram the point home, Bertolucci shoots each sex scene in the same blunt manner; you don't see much naked flesh but Brando's usage of butter sticks in the mind. If nothing else, for a mainstream director it's a unique approach.
Because Last Tango in Paris requires that Paul and Jeanne's couplings are divorced from normal emotion, the demands placed upon Brando and Schneider are somewhat unusual. In their relationship, stemming from a critical instant when they share one mind, there must be attraction without feeling. Luckily both prove up to the challenge. Brando, before he became bloated by carelessness, looks suitably worn, depleted by the trial of Rosa's death. In a bid to blank out the pain he pulls Schneider to him, using and dominating her, refusing even the courtesy of names. For him she is a safety valve. Schneider holds her own against Brando's method, bringing a vulnerable, wide-eyed, lost quality to Jeanne. It's not clear what she stands to gain from their trysts, she merely goes along with Paul as an alternative. By the time she realises this, inasmuch as Jeanne realises anything, it's too late; the genie has left the bottle. Beyond the apartment, where the lives of Paul and Jeanne are traced, the supporting roles fail to convince.
In bringing Last Tango in Paris to the screen, Bertolucci is assisted greatly by his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. In that fateful apartment they create an environment hermetically sealed from the living Parisian air, a space of isolation. Beyond a mattress thrown casually onto the floor, some furniture and other bits and pieces, the rooms are bare, testament to the fact that no one lives there. Storaro employs a palette of muted colours, mouldy green and mildew grey; corpse tones. Natural light filters unwillingly through the windows, drained of vibrancy by curtain and blind; Paul and Jeanne copulate in a half-light. Seen as pools of shadow and silhouettes, we are not invited to join their rhythm. Even when physically apart they are framed together through clever use of mirror and perspective. So talented is Storaro, the photography and lighting impress while Last Tango in Paris bores.
The sticking point for this particular movie, however, arrives about halfway through. Thus far we have been fascinated and entertained by the central characters, compelled to wonder what makes them tick. Brando and Schneider have attained critical mass, primed to fission in an emotional apocalypse. Then, at the worst possible moment, Last Tango in Paris fizzles out, it reneges on its promise. What you see is what you get, Bertolucci isn't going to proceed to the next level. To compound our misery, Last Tango in Paris seems to think that it's profound, exploring the meaningless of relationships and the path from obsession to tragedy. Unfortunately as outrageous as the film is, it is mistaken in this belief. You have to pity Brando and Schneider - both give fine performances, but to what end?