This is not, it turns out, a film about Marlon Brando trying to buy the last foul-tasting soft drink in the French capital. It’s actually a French/Italian drama about Marlon Brando getting fingered in the bum.
Brando plays Paul, an American widower who owns a hotel in Paris. He meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a young Parisienne woman, and the two begin a secretive affair in an empty apartment.
Last Tango in Paris has a reputation for being highly erotic, but it’s really about as sexy as an episode of Question Time. And like Question Time, it’s more embarrassing than sexy.
The dirty dialogue is so over the top that it’s unclear whether it’s deliberately bad or just horribly misjudged. If the phrases “ass of death” and “womb of fear” were used in 50 Shades of Grey they would be mocked, and quite right too. Meanwhile lines such as “I want you to smell the dying farts of a pig” just sound like dodgy slash fiction for Babe, the Sheep Pig.
It’s all fairly thankless for Jeanne, who’s blank, submissive and generally a bit annoying. Throw in a predictable nudity imbalance between Brando and Schneider and it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t as boundary-pushing as it thinks.
Brando, however, is typically brilliant. His performance is both funny and sad, with a crazed energy and tangible pain not unlike Jack Nicholson. He does bear a strangely uncanny resemblance to Richard Dawkins, but this is never distracting, thanks to the long, patient shots of him acting his Richard Dawkins face off.
Bernardo Bertolucci directs with enough style to almost make up for his ridiculous dialogue. But not quite. Pretentious, ill-disciplined and empty, it’s a film overwhelmed by its pervasive sense of adolescence. Erotica done badly is often very funny, and Last Tango in Paris falls into this trap like a sexy gazelle being stalked by a big throbbing cat.