Love and Death take a final spin on the dance floor in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, which got the whole country's bowels in an uproar when it was first released 25 years ago. Time and Newsweek both ran cover stories, but it was New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, reviewing the movie's debut on the last night of the 1972 New York Film Festival, who got the ball rolling. Never one for understatement, Kael called Last Tango "a landmark in movie history," comparing the screening she attended to the riotous Parisian premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913. Then she pulled out the superlatives. "This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made," Kael wrote, "and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made." Obviously, she hadn't seen Showgirls. Even so, Kael's 3,000-word review, which United Artists reprinted as a two-page ad in The New York Times, became almost as famous as the movie itself. (Those were the days!) And now, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we can ask ourselves whether the movie and Kael's review have held up over time, thanks to Westgate Art Cinema, which is bringing Last Tango back for a two-night run on the big screen. Given Bertolucci's masterful use of space, it's a crime to watch this movie on video, but that's exactly what I had to do in order to preview it. Still, in my humble letterboxed opinion, the movie does indeed hold up--like a heroic 25-year-old erection, it holds up. And the guy supplying the blood? Marlon Brando.
As the Ugly American in Paris, a middle-aged male chauvinist who tries to ward off death with sex, Brando conflated his personal and public lives into a raging bull of male menopause. Maria Schneider had the easier role: She merely had to remove her clothes. Brando had to remove his skin, one bloody layer after another. Today, most of us remember him baring his butt but have forgotten the way he bared his soul. Then, of course, he more or less retired from acting, as if reeling from Last Tango's showdown between Eros and Thanatos. Twenty-five years ago, all anybody could talk about was Eros--the butter scene, etc. Now, it's quite clear the movie belongs to Thanatos. In fact, its original title was La Petite Morte, an old French expression for orgasm.