7 landmark performances by Jean-Pierre Léaud

#4 – LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972) by Bernardo Bertolucci


Film directors, specifically auteurs classified as “arthouse,” are mostly driven towards storylines and characters that are directly related in one way or another to themselves. The beauty of being Jean-Pierre Léaud and reaching your prime in the sixties and seventies, is that cinema was thriving on arthouse cinema. This meant that there would be many auteurs essentially writing parts for you.
It is no coincidence that Léaud should be cast as a film director in Last Tango in Paris. In a way, its incredibly fitting. Here, Bertolucci has drawn up a character that seems to be more than vaguely like Jean-Luc Godard. Having played Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, it seems like something that had to happen. Of course, the argument of his casting as a director’s alter ego relates to a certain (passive or otherwise) vanity that is essential in the works of the vast majority of the most interesting directors. This is especially true of the ones who left a mark on this period, including Bertolucci. This vanity is actually what Bertolucci studies in his portrayal of Tom, the film-maker boyfriend of Jeanne.
Tom speaks funny, cheesy lines that seem to have been drawn from films, films of a different nature from Last Tango in Paris similars. This makes the tenderness of his love for Jeanne seem superficial, if not fake. He has actively created this cinematic ideal of his girlfriend. In the film, he is shooting a docudrama about their life together. When he looks at her, he’s not looking at her. He is thinking about how to film her. It’s easy to see what makes this different from other performances by Léaud throughout his filmography. Léaud, here, is actually performing. He is not detatched, distant, deadpan. He is, sometimes, irritatingly fake. This is not accidental, this is on purpose, and it is purposefully surprising also because of the familirity of an audience with the actor.
Given the terrific irony of this circumstance, it is almost a shame that he should be, predictably, outstaged by Marlon Brando. It’s not Léaud’s fault – the film is simply constructed this way. What’s worse is that in recent times, the “butter scene” is all people highlight of this tremendously stunning, yet reflective and cerebral film.

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