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We Can Still Feel the Pulsing Rhythm of 'Last Tango in Paris'

September 09, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith regularly writes about film for the Times Orange County Edition.

Movie critic Pauline Kael is not known for gushing, but when "Last Tango in Paris" came out in 1972, she went into an uncustomary swoon.

In a long piece in the New Yorker that was as much essay as critique, she wrote that Bernardo Bertolucci's film "has made the strongest impression on me in almost 20 years of reviewing."

The picture caused more than a sensation with the formidable Ms. Kael. "Last Tango," which begins Cal State Fullerton's fall film series tonight, was the subject of cover stories in both Newsweek and Time. Film analysts and historians dug in like thrilled sharks in bloody waters; the movie became something of a phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the film is a jolt. It starts with the opening scene, when we're introduced to Paul (Marlon Brando), howling in pain in a Paris street as a train screams by overhead. His wife has just committed suicide and there's no way to solve that mystery. All that's left for Paul is a passive, self-hypnotizing grief.

But then he meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider) a few moments later in an apartment they both want to rent. She's intrigued by his bleakness (there's mystery in that for her, unlike Paul's bleakness over his wife, but almost as powerful) and he's looking for a connection that will separate him from his wife and the failure of their marriage.

A frantic copulation occurs out of nowhere, and Jeanne and Paul begin an affair in the apartment, meeting for primal sex and what little they can learn from each other in a blank setting that rejects all conventions and civilized niceties.

The film inspired almost as much condemnation as praise. First off, it was immediately saddled with an X rating for both nudity and mature themes, a reaction that now seems quaint. Some feminists also hated the depiction of Jeanne, a much younger woman who is physically and emotionally dominated by Paul.

But it's difficult to dispute that "Last Tango" does hit on the powerful sexual dynamics that can exist between a man and a woman. If some of the dialogue now seems arch, and Brando's performance--thought by many to be one of his best--does get mannered and self-conscious, it's only because the film has so much ambition.

There are challenges in almost every frame--simply, Bertolucci is striving to illuminate corners of taboo eroticism and, more important, human darkness and regeneration.

"Last Tango," in an evening labeled "Sexual Obsession Night," is double-billed with director Vincente Aranda's 1992 release, "Lovers."

The series continues Sept. 23 with "Film Noir Night," featuring "The Third Man" (1949) and "Double Indemnity" (1944).

On Oct. 7, it's "Bizarre Coming 'o Age Night" with "Leolo" (1993) and "The Tin Drum" (1979).

A double dose of director Jim Jarmusch is planned for Oct. 21 with "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984) and "Down By Law" (1986).

Up next, on Nov. 4, is "Gay Night" featuring "The Living End" (1992) and "Fox and His Friends" (1975).

Scheduled for Nov. 18 is "Australian Night" with "Proof" (1992) and "Breaker Morant" (1979).

The program closes Dec. 9 with "Retro Night," featuring "Rollerboogie" (1979) and "Saturday Night Fever" (1977).

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