One Last Tango in Paris for Doomed Lovers

Based on Bernardo Bertolucci’s legendary film from 1972, “Last Tango in Paris: A Novel,” by Robert Alley, tells of the disturbing relationship between an American widower and a young, sensuous Parisian bride-to-be. 

The movie, which starred Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, was one of the most controversial films ever released, earning both an X rating and international condemnation. The film was heavily censored in Italy, where Bertolucci was put on trial for public obscenity. 

Brando and Schneider were said to have been considerably affected by the shoot. Schneider once told reporters that making the movie was the only regret of her life, while Brando did not speak to Bertolucci for 15 years after the film was released. 

The novel, which was first published in 1973 but was released in Indonesian for the first time this year, explores the consequences of an anonymous physical relationship, and closely follows the plot of the movie. It starts with Paul and Jeanne eyeing each other casually as they inspect the same apartment for rent. 

The mysterious magnetic attraction between the two strangers irresistibly gives way to wild love-making. They leave the apartment afterward without exchanging names and return to their daily lives as strangers, but with a promise to meet again the next day. 

For Jeanne, the adventure has just begun. The next day she finds herself at the apartment again. After another round of steamy sex, Paul makes Jeanne promise that they won’t reveal their identities to each other. 

Paul is still mourning the suicide of his wife, who left no clues or explanations about why she took her life. 

Meanwhile, Jeanne is increasingly bothered by her fiance, Tom, who follows her almost everywhere with a video camera, in an attempt to document the final days of their engagement. 

The anonymous trysts in the apartment provide an escape for Paul, who is burdened with the death of his wife and the preparations for her funeral. For Jeanne, the affair is an escape from her suffocating fiance. She admires Paul’s raw masculinity and brashness, and decides to indulge herself in an exciting and lusty relationship. 

In the film, Bertolucci presented explicit sex scenes and coarse dialogue, including filthy jokes and disquieting anecdotes about Paul’s contempt for the institution of the family. What made the film stand apart from mere pornography was its serious treatment of the human character, through its exploration of the couple’s dark, highly complex relationship. 

In essence, how fatal could an encounter be between a lonely 40-something man who’s lost all faith in the world, and a 25-year-old woman with youthful vigor, simple curiosity and honest convictions? 

Jeanne eventually begins to feel torn between her life in the apartment and in the outside world. She begins to question her engagement, as Paul introduces her to a new concept of adulthood. Jeanne soon finds she cannot stop herself from returning to him. 

She is both scared by and attracted to Paul’s cynicism and crudeness. One day she feels an urge to tell him that she is in love with him. She expresses her feelings of adoration without revealing who it is that she’s fallen for. 

Paul is furious at the thought of love and what he sees as the myth of belonging, of love’s capacity to banish emptiness. When Jeanne elaborates, and tells Paul that she’s fallen in love with him, Paul feels as if he’s been led into a trap. He acts on his rage by commanding the young woman to engage in a sexual act that she’s never attempted before. 

The day before his wife’s funeral, Paul pours out his frustration next to her coffin, drowning in his suffering. It is only after burying his wife that Paul feels a sense of peace. He wants to end his secret world with Jeanne and start anew. 

When they meet, Paul reveals his identity and proposes to Jeanne. He walks her into an old dance hall and tries to converse with her as decently as possible, overwhelmed by the strength of his own feelings. But Jeanne is baffled. Outside of their private world and in the light of day, why was this old, pathetic man so far removed from the cruel, sadistic man in the apartment? Could Paul convince her to stay with him? 

With a story so simple yet fatalistic, portraying the diseases of modern society, the novel could have been an important one at the end of the 20th century. But those who have already seen the movie might not find a similar power in the novel. The strength of the language in the book somehow don’t seem to match its visual counterpart. Or perhaps Brando’s and Schneider’s renderings, under Bertolucci’s direction, simply left too deep of an impression.

‘Last Tango in Paris: A Novel’
Robert Alley
256 pages
Serambi Publisher  
January 2011

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