Heat of the moment

Art less interesting than the commerce

Published: Jun 12 2015, 01:01:am

Saturday, May 26, 1973.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Ultimo tango a Parigi). Music by Gato Barbieri. Written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Running time: 129 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: frequent use of coarse language; scenes of perverted sex. In French with English subtitles.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING you need to know about Last Tango in Paris is the price of a ticket. It's $4.00.
    All seats — $4.00.
    Since the film first opened in New York, there have been hundreds of articles written about the candour of its sexual simulations, the undercurrent of violence and the poignant universality of its story. I'd like to take just a minute to talk about economics.
    For $3.00 less, a couple can enjoy an equally thoughtful show of real sex as Deep Throat (a much publicized phenomenon in its own right) continues its long run in Blaine, Washington's Sea-Vue Theatre.
    For $3.00 less, a couple can see a more meaningful exploration of violence in Sam Peckinpah's latest film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just across Granville Street in the Orpheum.
     For $3.00 less, a couple can see the same problems of individuality and the male-female relationship explored with less pretence by Charles Bronson and his real-life wife Jill Ireland, in the gangland action picture The Family, newly opened at the Coronet.
    Put another way, the long-awaited Last Tango in Paris is little more that the Latest Rip-Off in Vancouver. After seeing the film press-previewed in New York, Toronto Daily Star critic Clyde Gilmour called it "one of the most grotesquely over-rated and over-ballyhooed entertainments to the history of inflated superlatives."
    The film is the property of the United Artists corporation, and the fires of greed have burned brightly in its executives' eyes ever since the American newsmagazines Time and Newsweek gave it feature coverage. The flames leapt higher when Playboy joined in with major uncoverage.
    When Last Tango opened in New York, UA figured it could get away with a $5.00 admission ticket — "porno house prices," according to Judy Klemesrud of the Times.
    Determined to squeeze absolutely everything it could out 
of its investment, UA reversed the usual booking procedure. Instead of offering to rent the film to theatre owners on a percentage-of-the-boxoffice basis, the company is renting theatres outright (a distribution strategy called "four-walling"), raising the admission price and pocketing all of the profits.
    Locally, UA has an open-ended deal with Odeon Theatres for the use of its 680-seat Odeon Theatre on Granville. Back east, they figure the rubes in Vancouver will keep their money mine in business for a good six months. At $4.00 per rube, they expect to make an awful lot of money.
    And what are they offering in exchange?
    Exactly the sort of movie that art-house audiences and film societies have been looking at for years. An Italo-French co-production, Last Tango is yet another young European filmmaker's vision of life in the big city.
    In what proved to be a winning move, writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci cast American actor Marlon Brando to play his "hero," a middle-aged drifter named Paul who's fetched up in Paris, where he is managing his French wife Rosa's run-down apartment-hotel.
    As the film opens, Paul is wandering the streets in a daze, a state of shock brought about by his wife's suicide the night before. He sees Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a pretty young shopgirl, looking at a room-for-rent sign and, while she is making a phone call, he goes up to the empty apartment to wait for her.
    When she arrives, they banter half-heartedly. Then, for no apparent good reason, they couple violently. For the rest of the film, they meet at the same apartment, their retreat from the outside world, to rut and ruminate over the meaninglessness of their lives.
    In that outside world, 20-year-old Jeanne is involved with Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a wannabe filmmaker who follows her around with a camera crew recording "their" story.
     Paul, meanwhile, is involved in a series of discussions with his dead wife's mother (Maria Michi), Rosa's former lover Marcel (Massimo Girotti) and her corpse (Veronica Lazare).
    On the whole, Bertolucci has nothing new to offer the reasonably sophisticated filmgoer. Jean-Luc Godard was making the same sort of films — somewhat self-indulgent, partially improvisational — years ago.
     More casual filmgoers may be in for a few surprises. The first will be the English subtitles. In its advertising, UA never once mentions that more than three quarters of the film's spoken dialogue is in French.
    The other surprise is how dull and monotonous alleged film art can be.
    Why, then, is Last Tango touted as this year's "film to see"? There are two reasons.
    First, Marlon Brando is hot. Once famous as "America's finest actor," Brando went for many years without a hit. Then, with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in last year's The Godfather, he bounced back, and New York's critical fraternity bounced with him.
    It is easy to like a man riding as high as Brando was, who went off to Europe to make an "art" film. Let's not mention that time in 1969, when he starred in another European art film, Gillo Pontecorvo's politically-charged Burn!  Then, he was mostly ignored.
     In the earlier picture, Brando played a purposeful Englishman named William Walker, a role in which his enunciation was impeccable. In Last Tango, he plays a dispirited expatriate American, the kind of slob who can mumble incoherently in two languages: French and profane.
    The second reason for Last Tango's success is the current climate in New York itself. Like it or not, hardcore porn has become de rigueur, and the critical trend-setters are hard pressed to make the full-scale mental transition necessary to comment intelligently on the situation.
    Bertolucci's film came at exactly the right moment, and contains exactly the right feeling of sexual amorality to help them through these troubled times.
    Such circumstances, when offered to the greedy-eyed executives at UA, have resulted in a phenomenon. The publicity machine has turned Last Tango in Paris, a minor film, into a major sensation.
    With a running time of just under 130 minutes, sharing that sensation will cost you just over $2.00 an hour.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Prior to Last Tango in Paris, director Bernardo Bertolucci had distinguished himself with a powerful little film about political survival in Fascist Italy called The Conformist (1970). After Last Tango, he made the multimillion-dollar 1900 (1976), a sprawling, all-star chronicle of 20th-century Italian history that hardly anybody cared to sit through. A decade later, an older, wiser Bertolucci redeemed his reputation with 1987's The Last Emperor, an historical epic that actually deserved its best picture and director Academy Awards. In the above review of Last Tango, I took considerable space discussing the economics of film distribution in the early 1970s. At the time, such information was mostly confined to movie industry trade journals because it was assumed that the general audiences didn't care how its entertainment got to their local cinema's screen. The Rio Theatre's Italian Nights event brings to mind a time when national cinemas like that of Italy could grow and thrive in the North American market. That time is past. Corporate Hollywood has come to dominate the immediate world, with the current features showing in the chain-linked multiplexes reflecting its idea of appropriate entertainment for the masses. Filmgoers with a taste for something other than another Jurassic Park sequel or Poltergeist remake are grateful for independent theatres such as The Rio. Back in 1973, I was outraged at a $4.00 ticket price for Last Tango. Today, the economics are such that The Rio's single ticket price of $10.00 in advance, or $12.00 at the door, seems perfectly reasonable. Personally, I benefit from the $8.00 senior's rate — only $4.00 more than it was way back when.