Critical dialogue
Another Last Tango

by Anne Marie Taylor

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 26-27
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

I would like to offer an alternative interpretation to a point raised by Ann Kaplan in her article on LAST TANGO IN PARIS (JUMP CUT 4). Kaplan sees it to be a major defect of the film that the viewpoint expressed it almost entirely Paul’s. Kaplan regards the fact that Bertolucci never lets us know Jeanne’s “thoughts, feelings, or wishes” as a reflection of Bertolucci’s sexism, and as a reinforcement of negative stereotypes about women.

If the film is understood ironically and symbolically, however, rather then literally, the overwhelming predominance of Paul’s perspective works forcefully to show the sexual oppression of women by men. This point of view need not therefore be interpreted as attributable to the director’s sexism, but rather as a deliberate attempt to parody the exploitative attitude toward woman embodied in the figure of Paul. Such an approach, in which the audience learns little directly about what Jeanne in thinking (which in no way compels the audience to believe that she isn't thinking anything) has a distinct advantage from a directorial point of view. The acts of sexual aggression performed can thus be isolated and objectified. This is so notwithstanding Jeanne’s apparent willingness to participate in her own exploitation, which can be seen either as a consequence of her naive vulnerability to male aggression as revealed early in the film, or as Bertolucci’s portrayal of her as Paul’s fantasy. (The latter, of course, would attribute a more imaginative dimension to the film.) Although the director withholds knowledge about the intricacy of Jeanne’s character, the violent ending confirms that a great deal was going on in the character’s mind, and her sudden murder of Paul is not necessarily the “inexplicable act” suggested by Kaplan.

If Jeanne is intentionally portrayed as a male projection and not as a developed character, the choice of Paul as the dominating figure can be seen as a conscious artistic and perhaps political choice, and a potentially effective one. Whereas Kaplan asserts that “nothing in the rest of the film prepares us for sudden murder of Paul,” it could be said, in line with the interpretation suggested here, that everything prepares us for a moment when Jeanne will react with violence, not as an “archetypal bitch,” but as the victim of relentless and brutal oppression. (Kaplan’s use of “archetypal bitch” and other sexist terms in her article is unfortunate. It raises the problematic involved when a critic herself/himself reiterates sexist language and concepts while attempting to counteract sexist ideas.)

The fact that neither Bertolucci’s emphasis on Paul’s perspective nor other exaggerated and parodic aspects of the film work effectively to communicate what has the promise of a counter message to destructive sexist conditioning in bourgeois culture can be attributed, not to the fault of these approaches, but to their incompleteness. It can be argued that without self critical correctives (enter Godard), the narrative framework which Bertolucci uses necessarily undercuts important satiric and critical techniques, including this deliberate predominance of a male perspective.