It's been said that Marlon Brando used many personal details from his own life in his characterization of Paul, an American living in Paris, who manages a "fleabag" hotel frequented by prostitutes and junkies. He is trying to recover from the suicide of his wife Rosa. Wandering through an apartment for rent at 1 Jules Verne, he meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who is also considering renting the apartment. She is a 20 something free spirit engaged to a budding filmmaker.
They begin a highly charged affair, carried on anonymously, in the same apartment. Paul subjects Jeanne to a series of sexual humiliations but she returns again and again, clearly bored by her pretentious fiance Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a seemingly Bertolucci-like filmmaker who sees the reluctant Jeanne as his muse. Paul insists angrily, even violently, that he has no desire to know anything about her.
Paul is coarse, vulgar, and mean-spirited towards Jeanne and clearly still full of anguish over Rosa's death. Either Bertolucci wished us to see Paul as an embodiment of the "real" Brando or used the details of Brando's acting career and real life as a spur to have the actor dig deep into his psyche for this role. The cleaning woman who wipes Rose's blood from the bathroom speaks nonchalantly of the conversation she had with the police regarding Rosa's suicide. She tells them of the many roles that "Paul" has held: a boxer (On the Waterfront), a South American revolutionary (Viva Zapata), a gangster (Guys and Dolls and The Godfather) as if she is reciting Brando's CV.
To Jeanne, Paul speaks about his father whom he calls a "whore fucker" and tough guy; his mother was a drunk who was often arrested and had to be dragged home, sometimes naked. Brando has spoken openly about both of his parents in this fashion in his biography. The language is profane and the script feels improvised, like a boy obsessed with scatological detail and a desire to shock the bourgeoisie. Particularly telling is a famous monologue in Tango
Bertolucci has said that he had always held a fantasy about meeting an anonymous woman in a hotel and having sex with her, not knowing her name or any details of her life. Here Bertolucci's fantasies and Brando's tortured inner life collide.
The film is painful to watch, in part, because Paul is so cruel to Jeanne and because he is in great pain. He is alternately extremely cruel and violent, then gentle and tender. He abuses his poor mother-in-law who wishes her daughter to be buried with the church's absolution and then reacts sympathetically, humanely, towards Rosa's lover Marcel (Massimo Girotti), another hotel occupant. He abuses his wife in her coffin calling her unspeakable things then weeps over her corpse unconsolably. The viewer feels that Brando has tapped into something very real, very frightening, as an actor.
This outburst before his dead wife seems to have cathartic effect on him and he then seems ready to embrace Jeanne completely. As if liberated from the terrible burden of his grief, he seeks her out and starts to spill out all his personal details in a dance palace during a tango competition and then chases her home as she becomes more and more terrified. It's as if she is more terrified of the reality of his life than the idea of having sex with a volatile, anonymous man.
Need I say, it does not end well.