Last Tango in Paris
By Harold Jaffe
All rights reserved.
excerpt from Movies
Last Tango in Paris
(directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
Paul and Jeanne–Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider–meet inadvertently at an apartment for rent in the Passy quarter of Paris. Orchestrated by Paul, the two have an ongoing affair in the vacant apartment. Paul insists they not confide anything of their past. Paul is a 45-year-old American whose wife Rose just committed suicide with his shaving razor. Jeanne is a 20-year-old Parisian actress.
Dotted through the film are couples dancing the tango in an exaggerated way to loud campy music.
You wept several times in Tango.
Were those real tears?
The tears were real.
You’re one of the very few macho male stars who cry a lot.
On and off the set.
Any reason you can pinpoint?
You don’t like to see Brando cry?
The fucking in Tango?
Was that real?
Bertolucci wanted frontal nudity, real fucking.
I told him I didn’t see the film that way, so he backed off.
You wrote in your autobiography that you couldn’t get an erection. That your penis was reduced to the size of a peanut.
What did Bertolucci mean when he shouted out to you on the set: You are the embodiment of my prick?
He didn’t know what he meant until he said it.
After saying it he still didn’t know what he meant.
Was your co-star Maria Schneider relieved or disappointed that you two didn’t actually fuck?
Why would she want to fuck a fat old man onscreen?
You weren’t that old in ’73.
You weren’t that fat.
And you’re Marlon Brando.
Well, you are…
Jaffe, the angry writer.
Angry about what?
Would you have liked to fuck Maria Schneider onscreen?
Hold the butter, though.
The butter scene couldn’t have been in the script.
Did you like it?
No anal penetration.
Just a little of that French sweet butter.
Though Maria said later that she’d felt violated.
What did Bertolucci think?
Never mentioned it.
The agreement was I would improvise.
If it didn’t work we’d edit it out.
But only with my permission.
How did you get along with Bertolucci?
He’s a good director, technically.
We were on different wavelengths.
He was directing one film and I was acting in a different film.
I don’t know that I can describe either one.
He couldn’t either.
Though he pretended to, throwing around words like “existential” and “angst.”
Justifying those Francis Bacon tableaus he used as the credits rolled.
I like Bacon’s work but it has nothing at all to do to do with the film.
Bacon’s work has nothing to do with the film you can’t describe?
After Tango Bertolucci said about you that you are an angel as a man and a devil as an actor? What did he mean?
Like existential and angst, it sounds provocative.
If existential and angst don’t apply, why is the leading character Paul in such a rage? Why does he weep?
Why does he insist that he and Jeanne not grant any personal info to the other?
That they exist–however briefly–as though in suspension?
Because he values dream-space, alienation, suspension, more than so-called real time.
Only his dream-space is fucking, which is awesome but limited.
You don’t like to fuck?
Initially, Bertolucci wanted to cast Jean-Louis Trintignant in the leading role.
I wish he had.
I used myself up.
The way I do it everything is evoked from my past, which meant recalling shit I should have kept buried.
I exposed myself in a way that I’d never expose myself again.
Unlike theater–serious theater–it’s easy to do movies from the outside-in. That’s how I did it after Tango.
Were you angry at Bertolucci for encouraging you to act in that painful “method” way?
It was my choice.
What did you think of New Yorker critic Pauline Kael’s rave review of the film, especially of your performance.
She compared its impact to Stravinski’s Rite of Spring.
Pauline Kael went off the deep end on Tango.
It was not even remotely a great film and I’ve done better acting.
In which of your films have you acted better than in Tango?
I’d have to think about it.
Your performance got excellent reviews–not just from Kael.
But Bertolucci was faulted for casting Maria Schneider, who was only 20, with almost no acting experience.
Do you think the film would have worked better with a more experienced actress like Dominique Sanda or Stephane Audran?
Each had been approached before Schneider, though neither could do it because of prior commitments.
Maria was fine.
She turned against the film and the butter thing years later after she declared herself a feminist and bisexual.
We got along on the set.
What is it with Bertolucci and the tango?
I mean the dance.
It’s an affectation.
Like Hitchcock appearing in an unexpected context in each of his films.
The tango shit is boring.
Bertolucci wants to be charismatic like Hitchcock or Pasolini or Godard.
He’s cultivated but he’s not charismatic.
There are actually two anal scenes in the film–the well-known butter sequence where you sodomize her; but then a second scene, where you ask her to trim two fingernails on her right hand then stick her fingers in your ass.
That had to have been improvised.
Why did Paul specify that she stick the fingers of her right rather than left hand in his ass?
That’s a question?
I don’t know why.
Why did you want her to sodomize you?
Not me; Paul.
What if Colonel Walter Kurtz of Apocalypse Now was in Paris instead of Paul? Would he use butter to sodomize young Jeanne?
Kurtz liked boys.
Kurtz wanted boys to fuck him in the ass.
You never read Heart of Darkness?
Coppola turned Kurtz in Vietnam into Jim Jones in Jonestown.
Jonestown is Main Street.
Coppola resembles Bertolucci, no?
They’re both chubby Italians is all.
They get caught up in their extravagances.
You don’t like extravagances?
Paul ordering Jeanne to finger his ass follows a sorrowful scene with Paul’s suicided wife’s mother, in which Paul experiences both contempt for the world he inhabits and self-contempt.
Does he induce Jeanne into sodomizing him because of his self-contempt?
What about those evocative lines when Jeanne comes into the vacant apartment after a week or more of fucking Paul anonymously.
She calls out to him but he doesn’t respond.
Then she sees him lying on his side casually eating bread and cheese. She says: Why didn’t you answer me?
What makes you think that an American eating bread and cheese on the floor is interesting?
Then she says: Your solitude weighs on me.
It is not a generous or indulgent solitude.
You are an egoist.
You liked those lines?
You, Brando, are known for your silences–your solitude while in the presence of people.
Have you ever considered its effect on people?
You spoke some pretty decent French in the film.
How did you learn the language?
I studied it.
I’ve traveled in France.
Polynesians speak French.
So we have an overweight, middle-aged, French-speaking American egoist fucking and sodomizing a beautiful 20-year-old French girl in a vacant apartment not just once but over a period of weeks.
Is that plausible?
Well, it’s the early Seventies.
The counterculture is still pulsing.
Everyone fucking everyone.
Paul in the film is smart and mordantly funny.
But is it the kind of humor that would attract 20-year-old petite bourgeois Jeanne?
What do you think?
I think that if it’s the famous-infamous Brando she’s fucking, it’s plausible.
If it is just Paul the American, depressed and overweight in his Camel hair topcoat and cashmere turtleneck, it isn’t plausible.
You could be right.
Jeanne jokes with Paul; she says in broken English: I am Little Red Riding Hood and you are the big, bad wolf.
Then she strokes Paul’s arms and says: What strong arms you have.
Paul’s response is: Better to squeeze a fart out of you.
She strokes his hairy stomach and says: What a lot of fur you have.
Paul responds: Better to give a snuggling space for the crabs and lice.
She touches Paul’s mouth and says: What a long tongue you have.
Paul’s response is: Better to stick in your rear, my dear.
Raunchy sort of sex, right?
Was Maria Schneider down with that kind of raunch?
I didn’t squeeze a fart out of her–as far as I know.
I didn’t lick her ass.
Maria was beautiful but I wasn’t feeling sexy on the set.
Maybe I just wanted to be in Polynesia.
The dead rat scene was funny.
After they find the dead rat near the bed where they’ve been fucking, Paul picks it up by the tail and starts joking about eating it with mayonnaise. He says to Jeanne: I’ll save the asshole for you.
I always liked that line.
Because Jeanne’s come in from the rain and is soaking, Paul says with what seems for a moment like compassion: Better get out of those clothes.
You’ll get pneumonia.
You know what happens then, right?
That means I’ll have to fuck the dead rat.
That line leads to a more philosophical line where Paul says:
You have to go into the asshole of fear.
An improvised line, obviously.
What does he mean by that?
What did you say your name was?
Well, Jaffe, if Brando interests you then so-called method acting interests you.
You should know something about the asshole of fear.
Unrepressing your deepest fears for the purposes of acting authentically.
But I thought that is precisely what you decided not to do after Tango?
The line was in Tango.
Even before Tango, but consistently after, I acted only to make enough money to live the way I want.
Or think I want.
Being considered a great actor no longer matters to you?
Gielgud is a great actor.
Olivier is a great actor.
Barrymore–when he wasn’t soused–was a great actor.
I am not a great actor and I don’t give a shit.
There is the scene in Tango where Paul is shaving presumably with the same straight razor that his wife Rose used to kill herself.
Jeanne is in the bathroom with him and maybe a little bit freaked.
Especially when Paul makes a reference to being psychotic.
Right. There is a sense of madness or autism in Paul’s character.
Was that intentional?
You feel some affinity with madness?
Me or Paul?
When at the climax Maria shoots Paul, he sticks the gum he’s chewing on a railing before collapsing.
Another method move, right?
No, the gum had lost its savor.
Final question: Were you wearing your trademark earplugs during the shooting?
Only when other actors recited their lines.