"That's your happiness... and my ha-penis."
If this line creeps you out to no end, you're not alone. Marlon Brando was 47 when this movie was made and his love interest, Maria Schneider was 19. This fact alone earns this film a place in the canon of creepiest films ever made. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what is so creepy about the entire film, but it's an extremely unsettling film to watch. Brando is the kind of actor so at ease on screen that it's almost hard to tell if he's acting. Believe me when I say that I mean this as a very high compliment, it's just that, in the context of a film like this, it's downright disturbing.
Brando plays Paul, an American living in Paris, mourning the suicide of his wife. While looking for an apartment, he stumbles upon a Parisian girl named Jeanne (Schneider) with whom he begins a torrid affair. They meet in the apartment on a regular basis and have sex. They talk too, but Paul doesn't want to know anything about her. He wants it all to be anonymous and impersonal. She's a young woman, so the psychosis of a woman this age virtually prevents that from being a reality, and he flies into a rage anytime he thinks she's about to reveal some personal detail about herself, yet he drones on endlessly about himself and his past. It's hyper-masculinity to the point of being revolting, and it made the character thoroughly unsympathetic and irredeemable for me.
Director Bernardo Bertolucci spent his formative years training under one of my favorite directors, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and it serves him well behind the camera. His composition is always visually dynamic and interesting, and the scenes that don't feature the imminent threat of seeing Brando's dong are brilliantly done. The film is beautifully lit by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and rivals his best work with Bertolucci on The Last Emperor.
In true Brando form, his best scene is with Massimo Girotto, whom he views as an equal on screen. He's the only person he doesn't try to out-act in their scene together, and it's the only time Brando is truly effective. Brando was a narcissist and he insisted on writing his own dialogue in the film. It's mostly pretty awful, and I wish Bertolucci had been firmer with him, but he had only made a few films at this point and didn't have the clout or the cajones to stand up to Brando.
The infamous butter scene is almost as difficult to watch as the subway station scene in Irreversible. It's downright horrific and ended up scarring Maria Schneider for life. No one deserves that to happen to them, and I can't help but wonder what this film would have been like with any other actor in the lead role. It might have some merit to it, it is brilliantly directed and shot. I understand that Paul is a character in pain, and he's looking for connection, but Brando's dangerousness makes the film almost impossible to handle.
On a side note, I didn't realize until I looked it up on imdb, but it was wonderful to see Jean-Pierre Leaud in this film as Jeanne's fiancee Tom. He is best known for playing Antoine Doinel in Truffault's The 400 Blows and several other films. This film has tons of connections to some of the great European films and filmmakers, even featuring a small role from Catherine Breillat who would come to be a controversial filmmaker in her own right with films like Fat Girl and Romance.
There's lots here to admire, but Brando alone makes me hesitant to recommend the film to anyone other than die-hard fans of Bertolucci or Brando. Maybe a Brando fan can change my mind about his performance, but he is far and away the most unlikable protagonist Brando ever played, and it's hard to separate his performance here from his own instability in real life. He gets what he deserves at the end, and I have no problem saying that. I'd have done the same.