For the span of about fifteen minutes – from the start of the opening credit sequence until Paul and Jeanne make love against the window and then leave the apartment they will spend a great deal of the movie in together – this film is cinematic glory at its greatest. The possibilities for the motion picture as a full blown art form are exploited to spectacular advantage in almost every way possible before the flick, unfortunately, starts a gradual slide into cliché, sensationalism, and melodramatic slop, as well as a real slowdown in the sheer virtuosity of the filmmaking. But what a start!!
The part of the film I highlight here is bookended by two very distinct modes of the saxophonist Gato Barbieri. His main theme is a mid tempo, moody ballad with all the characteristics of Barbieri’s Latin-fusion period, including the trademark Latin percussion, shakers, and rattles, but as Paul and Jeanne exit the apartment and go forth into Paris there explodes onto the soundtrack some wild Ornette Coleman type free jazz on the piano (Barbieri was playing with Coleman soulmate Don Cherry around this time) – the perfect accompaniment for the half macho, half joyful timbre of the scene.
The painter Francis Bacon once said “Even in love, the barriers of the skin cannot be broken down.” The point behind the master stroke of using two Bacon portraits, a male and a female, to display the credits against is that it can impart a half aesthetic/half intellectual message or one that is fully aesthetic only, depending on the sensibilities of the moviegoer. It also speaks to Bertolucci’s immersion in culture – remember, this is the early 1970s. I wonder if Bertolucci means for the male/female in Bacon’s paintings to correspond directly somehow to the two principal characters, or in merely a more general sense? And seeing the name Jean-Pierre Leaud in the credits – what more can a cinephile ask for?
Fade in: we see Paul standing under the elevated train tracks. The camera twists in from behind him, on the right, as he clutches his head in his hands and screams profanity into the noise of the passing train above. He’s a striking man in a long, almost orange colored coat; while his face dominates the screen for a second we see Jeanne, an equally striking looking individual, in soft focus, walking rapidly behind him, catching up on him. His face wears confused, pathetic, hopeless, helpless, sad expressions. As she catches up to him and passes on by, walking quickly, she stops to stare at him for a brief instant. She is flamboyant beyond flamboyant – sensational head gear, long white coat, high black boots. (The scene is in some respects owned by the costume designer Gitt Magrini.) As she passes him Bertolucci makes sure to include in the shot, on the far left, a very conservative couple in black overcoats walking side by side – a total contrast and comparison to Brando and Schneider, a juxtaposition of the mundane and the spectacular. And when she jumps over the broom of the street sweeper in her path we have our real first introduction to the spell cast by of one of the greatest female presences in the history of motion pictures.
She rushes forward, hurrying on, jumps over the broom, and Bertolucci cuts to the street below where we see policemen – alert, accessible, and available, an ironic situation because it is the complete reverse of the circumstances at the end of the film where there is not a cop to be found anywhere when Jeanne so desperately requires one. There follow more close-ups of Paul’s perplexed face and both man and woman gaze upward at the apartment – she from right outside the building where it is located, he still underneath the train tracks.
We’re wondering – who are these two? What is their relationship to each other? The questions are about to be both answered and prolonged.
We get our first close up of Schneider as she contemplates the APARTMENT FOR RENT sign – what a superstar, maybe not Brando’s equal in acting ability but more than his equal in screen presence and charisma (she will repeat this situation with Jack Nicholson a few years later). She hurries down the stairs to a café to phone her mother. Two other people are in the restroom – an old woman brushing her dentures (the significance of which is… ?) and Paul, brooding. The only way he could have gotten there before her is to have gone straight down while she went up to the lobby of the building to read the APARTMENT FOR RENT sign. In another moment he will be in a place just a shade before her once again – we can’t know it at the time, but while the camera stays on her in the phone booth, calling her mother, he gets the key to the apartment from the concierge and enters it.
This phone call gives us our first little bit of exposition – Jeanne tells her mother that she is going to look at an apartment and then to the station to meet Tom, presumably her boyfriend or husband. But the visual exposition is just as strong – she opens her coat, puts her hand on her hip, the camera lingers on her legs as she preens for it. Bertolucci’s message is clear, and it’s not a feminist one – this is a woman primed.
The concierge in the building pleads ignorance of the apartment for rent when Jeanne says, with great flourish, “I’m here for the apartment.” The concierge says she knows nothing of the sign and complains that people come and go and she’s always the last to know. She tells Jeanne to go look at the apartment herself if she so desires because she, the concierge, is (presciently) afraid of the rats. She can’t find the key; Jeanne disgustedly turns to go; the concierge produces a duplicate with a cackle, making an insulting remark about Jeanne’s youth. The concierge bursts into song, and a hand reaches out to place an empty bottle outside the door of an apartment. The principal musical theme – a little too schmaltzy here – plays on the soundtrack. Bertolucci throws in a neat little auteur move on the clank of the bottle, switching the focus from the concierge in the background to Jeanne in the foreground. But the whole scene is an exercise in cinema – the camera starts back, off to the right, and slowly moves in on the window until the window is center shot. This is reminiscent of the very first shot of the film that picked Brando up under the Metro tracks.
Jeanne ascends to the apartment in the elevator in a shot that’s lit in black and gray, in great contrast to the stark lambancy that the scenes have been framed in thus far.
Once within the dark apartment she opens shades and the balcony doors and gets a fright to see Paul sitting by the fireplace. She remarks that he must have come in behind her when she entered and left the door opened, but he says no, he was already there. Almost instantly they’re talking about where the furniture should go. He moves around; in a too obvious symbol, or metaphor, or whatever you want to call it, her reflection is shown in a cracked mirror. This time the panning camera moves back, not in closer, as she asks him, in English “What are you doing?” She – and we – are totally unable to make sense of this man’s dark, strange behavior. Neither she nor we, the audience, know a thing about him as yet.
In a shot photographed in a blue and white that clashes with everything else we’ve seen so far (as did the black and gray of the elevator shot), she goes to the bathroom and uses the toilet casually. She returns; the camera backs up to show her hat isolated on the floor; after she asks, “You still here?” he sweeps her up into his arms.
As sex scenes often are in the movies, this once is a turn on, a turn off, and bewildering. The brute animal force of it is electrifying, but there are too many questions – for example, they’ve passed each other twice already, once in the street under the train tracks and then again in the lavatory in the café. They’re both unforgettable looking individuals – they don’t recognize each other in the apartment? Perhaps they do but choose not to comment. This would go a little way towards explaining the spontaneous combustion.
I can imagine what feminist critics might have to say about all this -especially the way her body jerks like a marionette after she rolls off him once they fall to the floor, and the clear shot of her sexuality that accompanies this, to say nothing of Paul’s over the top priapic antics. It’s not my purpose to defend or criticize this here.
Oddly, though Paul never takes his coat off during any of the meeting, as they leave the building we see him, through the glass of the front door, putting it on. What?! When did he take it off? He wears an impish, almost mischievous, grin as they come out – not peccant in any way – while Jeanne seems shocked, dazed, confused. He takes the sign APARTMENT FOR RENT down, crumples it up, throws it away – the lease is signed, the relationship has begun.