What do Marlon Brando and Woody Allen have in common?
Both made movies with the word “Paris” in the title. Perhaps the men share(d) other similarities, but I’ve watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” in which Brando starred, and Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” this week. So, I’m going with that.
In “Last Tango,” Brando plays Paul, a middle-aged American in Paris who, following his wife’s suicide, wallows in the world’s worst cases of self-loathing and guilt. He meets a young Parisian, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who’s interested in renting the same apartment as he. They begin an abrupt affair in which Paul demands they share nothing personal including their names.
Viewers learn Jeanne’s filmmaker fiancé is — for some reason — making a movie about her. Paul lives at the flophouse his wife owned and interacts with his mother-in-law and his wife’s lover. Paul seems more put-out with the mother-in-law than the lover and the former finally says she’s beginning to understand. Her meaning is obvious. If Paul behaved half as horribly around his wife as he does others, an evening between the two could have ended with her screaming, “Enough! If you mention pig vomit or farting one more time, I swear I’ll slit my wrists!”
Paul’s ticked off at society, the church and especially women, and he takes out his aggressions sexually on Jeanne, who keeps coming back for more. She’s messed up, too. It’s as if she’s still a child and the apartment represents play time. After she visits her mother, I became convinced Jeanne had an Electra complex, and the ending did nothing to change my mind.
Schneider later said she regretted filming the unscripted and infamous butter scene because it made her feel as if she were being raped. After “Last Tango,” she refused to film another nude scene. For the most part, the nudity in “Last Tango” felt essential to the story. However, when Paul shaves as Jeanne, stark naked except for a scarf flowing from her neck, applies makeup, I asked, “Was her throat cold?”
Brando justifiably receives the acting accolades for “Last Tango,” but Schneider doesn’t embarrass herself opposite the legend, and it’s not her fault I was distracted by her resemblance to Linda Blair.
I regard “Last Tango” as Brando’s second best performance, following only “On the Waterfront.” Although Paul is a vile, bitter man whose actions disgust me, when he exposes his pain in a cathartic confrontation with his dead wife’s body, I summoned a smidgen of sympathy for him.
However, I sympathized with Gil, the lead character in “Midnight in Paris,” the first time his harpy fiancée, Inez, nags him. No surprise there. Woody Allen wants us to sympathize with his alter ego and detest Inez. But Owen Wilson, an “actor” whose characters I usually loathe on principle, plays Gil, so kudos to Allen, Wilson and Rachel McAdams (Inez).
Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter and unsuccessful novelist, travels to Paris with his fiancée and her parents. Gil and Inez do not belong together. She dismisses his writing ambitions, barks orders and shushes him in favor of her pedantic friend, Paul. (Not the same character from “Last Tango.” Though, I wondered, if Inez met that Paul, who would dominate whom?) Despite her personality faults, you understand why Gil’s with the attractive Inez. He thinks he’s marrying up. But she can do better. Seriously, just ask her wealthy parents.
Gil becomes a little tipsy one night, and after a stroll through the Paris streets, ends up in the 1920s where he hangs out with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. He returns back in time subsequent nights and meets other notables including Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali as well as an enchanting woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).
I’m not ready to buy a billboard proclaiming, “Woody’s back,” but I found “Midnight” charming and humorous. I’m a sucker for well-made period pieces, so I adored the scenes set in the ’20s. I’m also a sucker for funny comedies, so I laughed when Gil shared screen time with Inez’s friend and when Salvador Dali repeated “rhinoceros.” “Midnight in Paris” doesn’t belong among Allen’s classic films, but it doesn’t rank with his duds, either.
“Last Tango in Paris” has achieved classic status, but it’s difficult for me to view the film objectively. I understand and appreciate Bertolucci’s film, but I don’t understand why critics and admirers considered it so revolutionary upon its 1972 release. Was it because the movie showed explicit sex without romance or eroticism or because it showed ’50s icon Marlon Brando acting like a barnyard animal?
Maybe if I become a little tipsy, stroll through the Paris streets and go back in time to 1972 I’ll find my answers.