But, preacher, I feel my strength abandon me. Put aside your prejudices, be a man, be human, have no fear and no hope. Abandon your divinities and your creeds which have never served any purpose save to put a sword into the hand of man. The mere names of horrible gods and hideous faiths have caused more blood to be shed than all other wars and scourges on earth. Give up the idea of another world, for there is none. But do not turn your back on the pleasure in this of being happy yourself and of making others happy. It is the only means Nature affords you of enlarging and extending your capacity for life. My dear fellow, sensuality was ever the dearest to me of all my possessions. All my life, I have bowed down before its idols and always wished to end my days in its arms. My time draws near. Six women more beautiful than sunlight are in the room adjoining. I was keeping them all for this moment. Take your share of them and, pillowed on their bosoms, try to forget, as I do, the vain sophisms of superstition and the stupid errors of hypocrisy.
Marquis de Sade, Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man
Bernardo Bertolucci, The Conformist (1970)
Our freedom is burdened, weighed down by social conventions, moral norms and taboos, laws and States, relations of oppressive power and seducing alienation; fearing disorders beyond, we reach out for the serenity of security that seems to follow from this complex of restraining fabric.
If social life is impossible without these constraints, as some would contend, then it is the words of Ecclesiastes that ring true: “I counted the dead happy because they were dead, happier than the living who are still in life. More fortunate than either I reckoned the man not yet born who had not witnessed the wicked deeds done here under the sun.” (Eccles. 4:2-3) And perhaps we are ill-fitted for anything more. It is not unreasonable to ask whether the desire for freedom, or free agency, is anything more than the illusion of a few, and accordingly, whether the condition of slavery does not sit more comfortably upon our shoulders.
But if it be illusion, even madness, then it is one rooted in our very bodies, for it is here that freedom finds its source and from where desire speaks. Bodies can rendered docile through domestication, desire can be created by and harnessed to controlling fictions, subjectivities can be made submissive. But in like manner, bodies can be driven by transgressive appetites, subjectivities moved by rebellious desires. And which of these two paths (to simplify) is followed is forever unpredictable, and can be made so.
Benardo Bertoluccci’s “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) is a cinematographic experiment in stripping away layers of control and fear; it is a journey into the nothingness that lies at the heart of all human existence, as expressed in naked flesh. Here, beyond any transcendent order (including that of the congealing and fetishising gaze of the camera – the gaze of Jean-Pierre Léaud in the film), the body is unfettered; in every singular act of transgression (social, linguistic, gestural, sexual … and there can never be an end to such actions, as the nakedness is always tempted or threatened by form), one more piece of limiting armour is cast off. What is then slowly made manifest is the violent creativity of the body, of “ourselves” as incarnated.
Shut away from the world in a Paris flat, in the manner of a self-imposed prison – a Sadean chateau – desire is unleashed, limited only by the personal histories and fears of the characters played by Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider.
Nothing utopian is celebrated in this nakedness. Whatever expressions it finds are not without relations of power. But what preserves this non-place against final domination is that all in the end is play. The two characters of the “Last Tango in Paris” are dancers, engaged in the art of ephemeral creation; they are in the end conscious that their freedom, and whatever is born of it, rests on the artificial suspension of the surrounding world’s oppression. And when all of their efforts begin to unravel, pushed and pulled as they are by the siren calls of “reality”, then it is their free desire that they sacrifice, that is, they let die or kill the only life that is worth living.
The “Last Tango in Paris” (as in all of Bertolucci’s great films) is a story of rebellion, of freedom’s incarnation and of its loss through the oblivion of the body.
Gato Barbieri, Last Tango in Paris
Bernardo Bertolucci died on November 26th.