‘Fake Ophelia drowned in the bathtub.’
–Paul in Last Tango in Paris-[i]
By Luke Scerri
It is an unfortunate undeniable occurrence that in film criticism, the importance of the musical contribution to the transformation of the art form is quite often overlooked, or underestimated because of several other factors that seem to strike the viewer at first glance. Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is certainly no exception. Gato Barbieri’s beautiful score[ii] complements the frivolity of the light and romantic title, yet at the same time, at certain instances such as the fourth and the eighth track (Last Tango in Paris: Ballad and It’s Over), it uncovers the true coarseness of the relationship in the movie, especially the former; in which there is this fluid melancholic shouting in the background, which is quite reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s expressionist portraits[iii] in the opening credits of the film. The strong presence of Barbieri’s music goes beautifully with Bertolucci’s vision of this story of passion, grief, and the abyss of the human condition, yet none (in my opinion) are as great as the fifth track: Fake Ophelia[iv]. In this essay I will share my views and my interpretation of the track, along with the way it was used in the film i.e. Paul’s monologue at Rosa (his wife)’s deathbed.
Before going into the scene itself, perhaps one must listen to the track on it’s own; a beautiful expression of melancholy, sorrow and solitude. The introductory string section gives it only a minimal sense of sadness, which goes with the rest of the score, yet with the introduction of the flute, and more powerfully; the saxophone, there is this feeling of true disparity and sombreness. Perhaps one can’t deny that it still sounds like some evening in some dimly lit city, and therein lies the expected romantic atmosphere, which is then so powerfully and aggressively tackled by Bertolucci’s take on the themes of sexuality and human expression.
The scene[v] itself happens in the darkness; Paul is seen at the bedroom doorway, he moves within the darkness: the same darkness in which he finds himself in, in attempting to understand his wife’s reason for suicide. He moves towards his mother-in-law’s ‘masterpiece’ as he calls it; Rosa’s decorated deathbed. The monologue is not intended as one, by Paul himself, as there is this sense of struggle for a dialogue that can never be attained. Logically, Paul’s behaviour here seems to reflect a mad individual, yet this is because in it’s brutal honesty it delves into the deepest depths of human thoughts and emotions; it is perhaps what we would like to say to people whom we love and who hurt us; ‘… cheap fucking godforsaken whore, I hope you rot in hell…’. There is no doubt that Paul is ‘speaking daggers’ out of his passion, and in fact this is then succeeded by his crying, and complementing this second sudden burst of emotions (after the previously mentioned outburst of swearing towards Rosa), is Barberi’s Fake Ophelia.
The name of the track brings two names to mind: Hamlet and Shakespeare. Of all the names in the world Bertolucci chose ‘Ophelia’, a most peculiar choice, and if I may say so: a most appropriate one. At first, with the exception of the fact that both characters were found dead in water, and both characters’ death does not feature in the plot itself (Ophelia’s death is announced by Gertrude, and Rosa is already dead at the beginning of the film), the similarities between Rosa and Ophelia are unclear, mainly because we are not provided with a reason as to why Rosa commits suicide; as Paul himself says to her, ‘I don’t know why you did it.’ Yet there is something that we get from Paul’s monologue that is reminiscent of Ophelia.
‘I might be able to comprehend the universe, but I’ll never discover the truth about you. I mean, who the hell were you?’
This line represents a most mysterious notion in relationships; this idea of two persons becoming so emotionally and physically intimate with each other, when in actual reality they met each other at one point in their lives, and so preceding that point in time; neither of them meant anything, or even existed to either of them, and this prompts this question of: ‘who the hell were you?’. In answering that, Paul’s character reminisces to what we are to understand as their first night together, but in actual fact gets nothing out of that memory except grief. Shakespeare’s ‘Ophelia’ is quite a ‘stranger’ to the audience, and perhaps, even to Hamlet himself; not that in herself she was mysterious, but from what little we are told of her and from her innocence and plain simplicity, we remain in the dark, and in the end so does everybody, including her own brother Laertes who does not understand her demented songs of sorrow.
With this comparison in mind the question is: why Fake Ophelia? My personal attempt at answering such a question is that, whilst Shakespeare’s characters in Hamlet are aware of the reason of Ophelia’s unfortunate collapse into madness, and so to one point, can be consoled by a certain sense of meaning to her actions, Paul has nothing to console him: no reason. This is perhaps why Bertolucci chose such a strong adjective as ‘fake’ to describe the ‘Ophelia’ in Rosa’s character, because it reflects Paul’s anger at her for not telling him whatever was disturbing her so much, that it made her kill herself. Paul angrily says to her corpse;
‘You know why? Because you lied! You lied to me and I trusted you!’ and this line exposes this strong male character in a very vulnerable moment of sincere sadness, and his expression of this sadness through brutally honest confessions of anger.
n the scene we see human emotions altered through a most powerful human experience: Love. The passion with which lovers act towards each other is ‘open’ and ‘out there’ for the world to see; in fact, one can’t even imagine Paul thinking to do what Laertes does when looking into Ophelia’s grave and says; ‘Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia/ And therefore I forbid my tears.’[vi] Laertes is Ophelia’s brother and therefore he is not in love with her, even though he truly loves her; it is a different kind of love. Therefore, it would be unimaginable, if someone in love -who in all his love life has been the most ‘expressive of all artists’- even considers such an attempt to control emotions at such a particular moment. This is precisely what happens in the monologue scene in Bertolucci’s film -where in six minutes- Paul expresses every possible human thought that might have been kept secret inside his mind: meaningless everyday comments, mockery, doubts, memories, anger and grief. What we are left with in the end of this great sequence of film, is Marlon Brando’s ‘Paul’ weeping on his wife’s body (who with all those flowers arrangements around her, looks like Millais’ painting of Ophelia), and precisely at that point, enters Barbieri’s saxophone, creating this intimacy between the film and the viewer, and more importantly, easing the process for us to believe, pity, sympathise and actually like the complicated character of Paul. [vii]
[ii] Barbieri, Gato, Ultimo Tango a Parigi [vinyl] (United Artists, 1972)
[iii] Bacon, Francis, Portrait of Lucian Freud (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1964)
Bacon, Francis, Study for a Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (Private collection, 1964)
[vi] Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, ed. by Jeff Dolven, (New York: Barnes & Nobles, 2007), Act IV. Scene 7. line 182-183.
[vii] Millais, John, Ophelia, (London: Tate Gallery, 1851)