Marlon Brando is a man living in France (I should mention here something which few do, that much of this film is actually in French with sub-titles), whose wife recently committed suicide. He wanders around the city, forlorn, half-mad, and suddenly, one day, follows a young French girl (Maria Schnieder) to an apartment she is about to move into. The begining of the movie is quite contrived, as Brando somehow is able to make a surprise appearance in her apartment, hang around all depressed and such, and then suddenly press her against the wall and have sex with her. After this begins a strange affair, certainly not a mutually pleasurable one, in which Brando insists that no names be revealed (I guess so he can`t identify his pain, if it ever occurs again), and which occurs only in the apartment.
There are some good things about this movie, namely Brando. Even though this movie was probably pretty risky for a man of his stature to take, he still gives it his all. His character, when you really think about it, is no different from that of other warmed-over pieces of macho erotica, the sort who expects a woman to submit to his demands, who is utterly depraved, who uses nasty language to refer to female genitalia, etc. The character could easily fit in a Zalman King production. Yet Brando`s style of acting is wonderful even here, as he seemingly improvises often, and is able to express emotion and reality to his scenes. He can act casual and relaxed, act silly, or, in a scene which, as written, is typically crass and misoyginist, express a hotbed of emotions. That scene is when he speaks to his dead wife, and he insults her with all sorts of names and references, yet even though these are the rantings of a macho, narrow man, Brando makes us believe. I may still think Brando`s character is a pig, but he plays it with utter conviction.
Maria Schnieder is also good, actually. She project a boldness, which you would have to in order to act in a movie like this. She has a couple of good moments, like the moment when she blows up in front of her film geek fiancè, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows), and tells him that her mind feels raped by his constant filming of their lives and interactions. She also is able to be more than a pretty face with Brando, including a scene, which would have been cute had it been in a more gentler film, where they, wrapped around each other, try to climax without touching, and tell each other their "names". She is able to keep up with Brando in this sexual atmosphere. Bertulucci, however, seems to see Schnieder more as a sexual object. It is Brando who does most of the talking, and while he walks around fully dressed, Schnieder often walks around in a completly opposite state. While I give full points to Schnieder`s body, I still see the genre at work here. It is also crazy that she would even accept this in her life as an alternative to a near-marriage to the film geek; wouldn`t this be another form of rape? You`d think that she would be a little more concerned about her dignity, but, of course, like in 9 ½ Weeks, we are supposed to buy the idea that a sado-masochistic relationship is the real deal, while all those boring relationships with film geeks and unrealized affairs with nice guys aren`t.
This is really not a graphic movie as we would call it. The rating was X back in 1972, yet there is not much nudity, no tight closeups of anything, and we don`t get the feel of a rampant sex romp. There are two quite depraved scenes (including the infamous butter scene), but it is the implication more than the display which is profane. I wouldn`t even call this an erotic movie, because the feeling is so dark and distasteful toward sex and companionship that it wouldn`t make anyone aroused. This is an historical piece which should be viewed for that reason, but is really only little more than a artsy male-centered porn story, with Brando and Schnieder elevated it up a notch.
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