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Episode 120 - Last Tango in Paris (w/ Alison Willmore)


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Poll: Episode 120 - Last Tango in Paris (w/ Alison Willmore) (28 member(s) have cast votes)

Should "Last Tango in Paris" enter The Canon?

  1. Yes (9 votes [32.14%] - View)

    Percentage of vote: 32.14%

  2. No (19 votes [67.86%] - View)

    Percentage of vote: 67.86%

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#1 Dalton Maltz

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Posted 17 September 2017 - 10:39 PM

This week, BuzzFeed film critic Alison Willmore joins Amy to bring the 1972 erotic drama “Last Tango in Paris” to the table – and to make her case as to why it shouldn’t enter The Canon. They discuss how the film pushed the boundaries of mainstream eroticism, the fallout faced by director Bernardo Bertolucci for certain controversial scenes, and the most authentic of Marlon Brando’s rambling monologues. Plus, they question the lasting profoundness of the film and its long-term effects on actress Maria Schneider.

#2 Dale Cooper Black

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Posted 18 September 2017 - 09:05 AM

Great episode!

I'm surprised nobody mentioned the connection between this week's contender and last week's nominee. "Fuck tha Police," a song co-written by Friday star Ice Cube, is also a line uttered by Paul near the end of Last Tango. (Almost certainly the first time this line was ever spoken in a major motion picture, although I've never seen any Billy Jack movies, so I can't say for sure.)

Another thing nobody mentioned was Marlon Bongo's amazing post-rape handstand/flip. I've always wondered if he had any offscreen assistance for this bit, or if he really was that spry. (And for the record, I disagree with the hosts' negative assessment of Brando's physical appearance in this film. I think he looks fantastic. If I had to get pretend-raped by a ponderous, middle-aged, harmonica-playing twit, this guy would be my first choice. Klaus Kinski would be a distant second.)

The only other observation from this episode that I disagree with is the comparison of Brando to Johnny Depp. Brando was genuinely and thoroughly abandoned by Hollywood, for a long time, and it was due at least in part to his outspoken support for various progressive civil rights issues. Whereas Depp's descent into lazy self-parody was self-engineered, Brando's contempt for the film industry (and his own audience) was well-earned. Brando wanted to make the movie bigwigs pay dearly for making him eat so much shit during his years in the wilderness; Depp merely wanted to be Brando.

Other than that, everything in this episode was spot on (especially all the stuff about the infantilization of Maria Schneider).

So, does the Canon need yet another mannered, self-indulgent performance from Marlon Brando? Don't get me wrong; I wholeheartedly approve of all the other Brando films in the Canon. But it's kind of interesting that those three films give him a relatively short amount of screen time. Coincidence?

I'm not sure Last Bongo in Paris belongs in the Canon, but it sure makes for a great game of Pretentious 70s Art Film Bingo. Saxophone-and-bongo soundtrack? Check. Youthful auteur who walks around framing shots with his hands? Check. Smash cut to a bunch of quacking ducks? Bingo.
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#3 Johnny Pomatto

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Posted 18 September 2017 - 04:14 PM

I only had seen LAST TANGO once before as a teenager, when I was trying my best to see every possible film that had been called a masterpiece. The film bored me to tears and I couldn't understand why it was so acclaimed. Watching it again last night, I was far less bored, but I still don't much care for the film. I have no problem canonizing morally questionable films and filmmakers, and can separate art from artists pretty well, but even removing the infamous butter scene from the equation, I find this to be a pretty ugly film.

The opening sequence is a grabber, with Brando instigating tragically, ugly sex with a stranger as a coping mechanism for his grief, but his struggle seems to diminish too quickly after this, and he seems to be enjoying his sexual congress far too much in subsequent scenes, to the point that he comes across as creepily goofy. Did anyone else notice his almost Ferris Bueller-esque eyebrow raising when he's standing in the elevator with most of his face obscured? All you can really see is how brow line, which seems to raise repeatedly. This moment doesn't affect my vote, but just wanted to call attention to it.

I find Brando's character in this to be rather disgusting, and I agree that it would be hard to imagine Schneider being attracted to him at all if he wasn't still carrying faint traces of his former iconic looks. But as a character, he's a one dimensional depiction of misogyny, which I even have trouble believing wasn't observed at the time of its release. However, I'm conflicted because I do think this is one of Brando's most fascinating performances, and I dare say his last great one. Cue cards or not, he's bizarre and unpredictable. The scene when he's speaking to his wife's corpse is truly a triumph, and I also like the scene when he confronts her lover. But although I'm fascinated by some of his choices, I don't think he is a generous scene partner for Schneider, and both he and Bertolucci seem to limit what they're willing to let her play, at least clothed. I think she's as good in this as she could possibly be, (and I also really enjoy her in THE PASSENGER which I watched again a few weeks ago) but I think there's a much better film to be made that treats her character better and allows her to tell her own story. I could imagine Goddard or Truffaut making infinitely more interesting versions of this story.

Speaking of Goddard and Truffaut, I do really like Jean-Pierre Léaud in the film, and somewhat prefer the dynamic shown between he and Schneider. All of the sex and passion for cinema instantly make me think of Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS, which I also don't know to necessarily be Canon-worthy, but I strongly prefer it, and think it offers a much better balance between the characters and the sexes than this film ever does. I wish I could better put myself in the mindset of those witnessing this film upon its initial release. I just read Pauline Kael's review and reread Roger Ebert's Great Movie essay on the film, and they both left me scratching my head. I do think that there's something to the notion that even films that we don't all like can be important enough to be Canonized. After all, the discussion on the podcast was outstanding and almost justifies its inclusion based on that alone. (for the record, i would love for more guests to take the opportunity to argue against a film) But I think I have to vote NO, just because of my own personal distaste for the film. I can't say I have a desire to ever revisit it. There are better Bertolucci and Brando films I would sooner consider.

#4 HoldenMartinson

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Posted 18 September 2017 - 11:42 PM

I'm not sure how I'm voting. I'll find my reaction as I'm writing, but gosh, this is difficult.

Positives: This is among the most beautiful films I've ever seen. I had not previously watched Last Tango in Paris, and I was stunned at just how meticulously framed and thought-out the photography is in this picture. If nothing else, Last Tango in Paris is immensely watchable, despite being a 130-minute relationship drama whose moments of transgression are pretty infrequent. What also works, for me at least, are the performances at the center of the film. Maybe Brando is being really weird in certain spots, but they didn't feel artificial. His best moments are when he's quiet and brooding, though. Those moments are only slightly undercut by the strange turns of menace that come throughout the film. Similarly, Maria Schneider is so magnetic in every scene she's in, and the film could've used more of her. I think Last Tango in Paris has some insights on aging and putting away the past, which is really the only thematic thread that carries, but is done relatively well. We even have that moment at the end, where Paul is wearing Jeanne's father's hat, which makes him look like Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire, and then he takes off the hat, revealing just how much of an old man he is.

What doesn't work for Last Tango in Paris is the character logic, which--as is pointed out in the episode--falls apart after the butter scene. If the butter scene had come towards the end of the film, this would have made for a clearer character turn. We would see Brando clawing at the remains of control he has in his life by exploiting the one person in his life that brings him joy. We somewhat get this with the anal-fingering scene near the end, but that isn't given nearly the weight of the butter scene. Similarly, we never really figure out what the hell Jeanne even wants. Is she afraid of growing old and decaying? Does she think she can fix Brando? Does she just want to be in an affair where she has privacy, anonymity, or just semblance of control? The way her performance is edited suggests that she is confident in nearly every decision she makes, but the writing would suggest Jeanne feels confined by everyone and everything, including, by the end, Paul. And I can't tell if the film is trying to be self-aware, but Thomas's failure to understand Jeanne through film just feels like the pot calling the kettle black.

The one film I'm reminded of while thinking of this, and especially when thinking of The Canon is American Beauty. That's also a film about feeling that time is or has gotten away from a person, mostly from the point-of-view of an insufferable middle-aged man whose whole goal is to sleep with a woman half his age. American Beauty is, once again, a gorgeously shot, very much of-its-time type of picture. Of course, Last Tango in Paris is certainly far more important, but neither film is all that satisfying.

I guess I have to make a decision, but neither option feels right. As lovely as Last Tango in Paris is to watch, as much conversation as the picture generates, and as much as I admire any movie that pokes fun at Goddard, I'll have to go with NAY. If the movie gets in, great. We've certainly had worse (*cough* Friday *cough*). Still, Last Tango in Paris is not very good. Who is this for? Why would I recommend this to anyone, other than film people? If we had to but a Bertolucci in the canon, I'd go with The Conformist. Otherwise, I don't personally find entry justified.

#5 phred2321

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Posted 19 September 2017 - 07:29 AM

This movie may have been "ground breaking" at the time but Jesus, it does not hold up. My internet cut out with 30 minutes left, I never bothered finishing it and I feel no need to. Hard Pass

#6 MegadethOfSuperman

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Posted 19 September 2017 - 09:41 AM

I wholeheartedly agree with both arguments of LAST TANGO being a relic that no longer has the effect it must have in 72/73, and that the conversation surrounding this movie is one that has merit. I think it's gross that it's so apologetic for Brando's character and that his performance is very mannered. The film meanders and isn't all that cohesive in terms of message, but the tone is somehow always consistent. I don't know. I could say some positives and a lot of negatives, but considering that this was such a talking point, and while it's not the same erotically or culturally as it was, there's still so much to discuss. I feel like this is a great example for the canon to have a film that's a perfect distillation of a talk-piece film. It's almost a blueprint for conversations of merit, technique, historical relevance, performances (both great and bad), and film criticism itself. I feel weird voting yes because I don't think the film is worthy of the canon, but the conversation is.

#7 Dale Cooper Black

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Posted 19 September 2017 - 10:35 AM

View PostMegadethOfSuperman, on 19 September 2017 - 09:41 AM, said:

I don't think the film is worthy of the canon, but the conversation is.

Yes! I was on the fence, but I'm won over by this simple statement. As goofy, lazy and self-indulgent as this movie is, it's always fodder for great conversation. Anyone who decides to watch this movie has unwittingly wandered into a discussion that's been going on for over 40 years.

I'm working on a theory that Brando was actually using a sort of instinctual, proto version of NLP in his performances (and possibly his personal life). His mumbly voice and peculiar gestures aren't just showy mannerisms; he uses them to create a kind of hypnotic state in the audience. And if Paul is little more than an extension of Brando, then it might explain why Jeanne fell under his spell. (This theory is a work in progress, I'll keep you posted.)
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#8 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 19 September 2017 - 11:34 AM

View PostHoldenMartinson, on 18 September 2017 - 11:42 PM, said:

I'm not sure how I'm voting. I'll find my reaction as I'm writing, but gosh, this is difficult.

Positives: This is among the most beautiful films I've ever seen. I had not previously watched Last Tango in Paris, and I was stunned at just how meticulously framed and thought-out the photography is in this picture. If nothing else, Last Tango in Paris is immensely watchable, despite being a 130-minute relationship drama whose moments of transgression are pretty infrequent. What also works, for me at least, are the performances at the center of the film. Maybe Brando is being really weird in certain spots, but they didn't feel artificial. His best moments are when he's quiet and brooding, though. Those moments are only slightly undercut by the strange turns of menace that come throughout the film. Similarly, Maria Schneider is so magnetic in every scene she's in, and the film could've used more of her. I think Last Tango in Paris has some insights on aging and putting away the past, which is really the only thematic thread that carries, but is done relatively well. We even have that moment at the end, where Paul is wearing Jeanne's father's hat, which makes him look like Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire, and then he takes off the hat, revealing just how much of an old man he is.

What doesn't work for Last Tango in Paris is the character logic, which--as is pointed out in the episode--falls apart after the butter scene. If the butter scene had come towards the end of the film, this would have made for a clearer character turn. We would see Brando clawing at the remains of control he has in his life by exploiting the one person in his life that brings him joy. We somewhat get this with the anal-fingering scene near the end, but that isn't given nearly the weight of the butter scene. Similarly, we never really figure out what the hell Jeanne even wants. Is she afraid of growing old and decaying? Does she think she can fix Brando? Does she just want to be in an affair where she has privacy, anonymity, or just semblance of control? The way her performance is edited suggests that she is confident in nearly every decision she makes, but the writing would suggest Jeanne feels confined by everyone and everything, including, by the end, Paul. And I can't tell if the film is trying to be self-aware, but Thomas's failure to understand Jeanne through film just feels like the pot calling the kettle black.

The one film I'm reminded of while thinking of this, and especially when thinking of The Canon is American Beauty. That's also a film about feeling that time is or has gotten away from a person, mostly from the point-of-view of an insufferable middle-aged man whose whole goal is to sleep with a woman half his age. American Beauty is, once again, a gorgeously shot, very much of-its-time type of picture. Of course, Last Tango in Paris is certainly far more important, but neither film is all that satisfying.

I guess I have to make a decision, but neither option feels right. As lovely as Last Tango in Paris is to watch, as much conversation as the picture generates, and as much as I admire any movie that pokes fun at Goddard, I'll have to go with NAY. If the movie gets in, great. We've certainly had worse (*cough* Friday *cough*). Still, Last Tango in Paris is not very good. Who is this for? Why would I recommend this to anyone, other than film people? If we had to but a Bertolucci in the canon, I'd go with The Conformist. Otherwise, I don't personally find entry justified.


I have to agree with a lot of this, well said. It's beautifully shot, and well-directed. A pleasant aesthetic experience.

But on the other hand, the character work does not hold up well. It's hard to see the justification for why these two characters are drawn to each other. It's worse from the woman's side, but really there isn't much to support it either way. The film spends almost no time trying to convince us that these people have chemistry, before their relationship turns toxic. They are thrown together in the same space and that's it.

The historical importance of Last Tango feels like a "you had to be there" kind of thing. I'm in my 30s, far too young to have seen this film when it originally came out or experienced the cultural moment. That said, the film does give off the "feeling" of being something daring and groundbreaking. Even watching it for the first time last week, before reading about any of the history surrounding it (being banned for obscenity, etc.), I could tell that it was that kind of movie. But that also hurts the experience, viewing it through a modern lens: you are constantly making mental "corrections," allowing for the elements that have dated poorly, just to understand what the film is doing. It's probably never going to be possible for me to get caught up in the moment like Pauline Kael apparently was.

American Beauty was mentioned as a good analogue for this, a movie that seemed daring and transgressive in its time but now feels a little silly (while still containing some outstanding elements). Another earlier title I'd bring up is Easy Rider, one of the prime examples for me of a film where I intellectually understand its cultural importance to people who were alive at the time, but I have never enjoyed watching it. I enjoyed Last Tango more than that film, but it's still a soft no.

#9 rickyssofake

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Posted 19 September 2017 - 05:24 PM

I have to say that I'm surprised that the majority of votes are currently against Last Tango in Paris as it's a clear yes for me. I'd never seen this before, and going in my opinion wasn't skewed by public opinion of it being a "masterpiece"; if anything, I heard of it as being pretentious.

I was blown away by how boldly personal and complex this movie was. I think any movie that manages to study the inner lives of its characters so thoroughly deserves to be in the Canon.

Much was made in the discussion of how it was transgressive when it first was came out, and how that's no longer the case. But I think that's more a positive rather than a con -- while as a modern viewer I wasn't shocked by most of the sex, I instead felt that it was much more in tune with how many people use sex today. Some of this may be personal to my situation as a gay man who's taken part in the app culture, but I felt that it really spoke to the different roles sex plays in our lives.

Amy and Alison also took issue with Jeanne's characterization. While it's true that Jeanne isn't as fleshed out as Paul, I definitely wouldn't fault the movie for having her be inconsistent or the more less solid of the two. She actually reminded me of Scarlett Johansson's character in Lost in Translation; an ingenue who is less solid and consistent because she doesn't know what she wants. But unlike Johansson's character, she has allowed her curiosity to allow a stronger personality to take over. Yes, her decisions are dumb, but they're not without reason: she feels trapped in her engagement to a man who wants to hear all the details of her life except for those that matter. She runs to another man who wants to trap her, but in different ways that she can't see. She actively wrestles with questions of intimacy, and what we gain or lose from sharing it (e.g. how her story about her cousin and the two trees, and how it changed between telling Thomas and Paul). While Paul uses sex to escape into a fantasy, Jeanne is using it to find something real. People seem to dislike how the two had no "chemistry" upon first meeting, but I also don't think that's a fair assessment. While that's an issue in romance movies, this is clearly not a romance -- both are using sex on a transactional level, and they saw potential uses in each other. So while Bertolucci is clearly more interested in Paul, I don't think it's a fair judgment to say that he doesn't care about Jeanne's inner life at all.

Amy also discussed the title and its meaning. My interpretation comes from a line Paul says at the tango competition: he calls tango a "rite." Traditionally sex is considered a "rite" that is meant to lead to love and romance, but this movie is an exploration of sex's many uses. Much like the tango dancers who look cold and robotic performing what should be a sensual act, Jeanne and Paul perform sex without the emotions we typically attach to that rite (even if at times they think they are in love). This movie was Paul's last attempt at this rite, but clearly he got confused about his intentions.

I don't think this movie is perfect by any means (the ending feels a little contrived to me), but I do think it's probably one of the most genuine, personal, and emotional movies I can think of, and for that reason I think it should go in the Canon.

#10 Cronopio

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Posted 19 September 2017 - 11:18 PM

If it's Bertolucci for the canon, let it be "The Conformist". If it's Brando, let it be "On the Waterfront." But this? Nah, for reasons already mentioned by others and in the episode.

#11 daustin

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Posted 20 September 2017 - 01:44 PM

View PostCronopio, on 19 September 2017 - 11:18 PM, said:

If it's Bertolucci for the canon, let it be "The Conformist". If it's Brando, let it be "On the Waterfront." But this? Nah, for reasons already mentioned by others and in the episode.


Exactly. Beautifully-shot film, interesting performance by Brando, but in the service of telling the uninteresting story of two execrable ciphers.

#12 vanveen13

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Posted 22 September 2017 - 06:56 AM

This is a movie I'd avoided for years, but I'm glad I finally watched it, alot. From the Kael review I'd assumed it was going to be a scuzzy, verite movie about sex.Instead it's a stylized mediation on the way love and desire are blurred and corrupted by movie fantasies. The weirdo atmosphere of the apartment where Paul and Jeanne play house devolves to a kind of self loathing porno, a rotted version of the Billy Wilder film "Love in the afternoon" starring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn, somehow overlaid with Jean Luc Godard's "Contempt." The way the camera pans around and the lush music goes in and out abruptly, without warning, is one of Godard's most famous techniques for calling attention to movie magic.

But where "Love in the afternoon" was coy and pretended that an ending in which the young girl and the old rotter winding up together could ever really be happy, "Last Tango" plays out the situation without illusioins, power trip perversities and masochism right out front, and ultimately goes the opposite way. The old guy wants to hang on to the young chick, but instead of giving herself up to him she comes to her senses at the end and slips out of reach, because she's only been playacting her desire to be opened up completely through "real" "earthy" and "demonic" sex with an experienced older man she's fantasized as being aggressively dominant. Just as she plays at being the young filmmaker Tom's muse. She wants to be unconventional and bohemian yet deep down it's obvious she's a self-serving middle class girl, who'll always and ultimatley see herself as basically "nice," who'll go through all the usual self-serving stages of a priviledged life. What's great is that the film keeps an objective distance from her, doesn't score points off her behavior, let alone judge her in any obvious way for using Paul and cheating on Tom, who hardly sympathetic. Her reaction to the butter rape is the clearest indicator that she hasn't even begun to understand who she actually is yet. And I love the way the film allows transitions between the apartment affair and Jeanne's everyday life to feel a bit smeared and confusing, so that often we have the sense that she's not so much dating or in love with Tom as she is performing the part of perfect girl-woman for him; as she tries to do in a whole different way with Paul as well. At the end I'm still not sure if even she knew that she was never ever really going give up her easy life for a gasbag, angry middle aged man like Paul.

There's a similar smudging that goes on with Paul too, a dread and horror that underlies his storyline, dramatizing his self-loathing in creepy and suggestive ways. I.e. the film's been done in such an overipe and moody atmospheric manner that for awhile this viewer thought maybe it would turn out Paul's wife hadn't killed herself but that Paul killed her for being unfaithful to him with one of her flophouse tenants. But in the strangely macabre, Poe-esque scene where he sits with his wife's dead body, accuses her of being a "pig fucker" and sobs over her in total grief we see that he feels as if he'd killed her or over looked something essential about her that led to her cheating on him and ending it all, and it destroys his sense of himself as being above phoney civilized banal notions of love and marriage. This is why he's so hostile and violent to Jeanne. He needs to obliterate the possiblity he can be hurt again, even as he clings to Jeanne for any life he can get out of her,

Director Bertoluci, who parodies Godard in Tom, the young filmmaker character, has learned a great deal from him too. He's taken Godard's Brechtian way of layering naturalistic and highly artificial, poetic and idea-laden cinematic effects so as to frame what we're seeing with our remembered ideas about movie love. But where Godard tended to intellectualize and editoriize with ironic straightforwardness about the underlying themes of his films, as they unfolded, Bertoluci allows the audience to stay with the story, find its own way to the fim's meanings, which do fall into place but remain strange and ambiguous, like the Tango contest scene near the end of the movie. Obviously it makes a satirical comment about fake entertainment style eroticism yet it's charged with a sense of myteriousness because utimately everyone fakes up their roles as lovers to a certain extent; Paul and Jeanne, then, are as much puppet dancers as those around them even as they flale about gracelessly, with rom-com charm. And Jeanne's shooting Paul at the end is also reminiscent of Godard, like the sudden deaths of the heroines in "My life to live" and "Contempt," but Bertoluci's take seems less adhoc, more rigorously relevant to the theme that cinematic romance and maybe even sex itself, the way it's coiffed and styled to entice, is just the inescapable, transient and shadowy underside of the middle class strait jacket we're all forced to inhabit whether we like it or not. It's terrific to see a film that tries do something, goes so far and is so cold blooded in its approach. So this is a hard yes for the canon to me.

#13 DrEricFritz

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Posted 23 September 2017 - 07:54 PM

This is a movie that I had not seen before, but had heard of its controversies and importance. I'm glad I saw it and the discussion and comments above are really keen. I have been trying to decipher some sort of meaning out of the film. Is it about intimacy? Is it about age and the desire for youth? Is it more simply a story of people?

Here is what I have: Paul is chaos and Jeanne is order. It is a trope, but I feel it fits. Paul's chaos is trying to overtake Jeanne's order, but ultimately, order destroys chaos. Even when the story shows Paul or Jeanne's life outside of each other, their respective chaos and order shows. Paul has lost his wife, Jeanne is getting married. Paul cusses and is rude, Jeanne tries at niceties. Etc. This idea is also reflected in the score, with the romantic themes fighting with the jazz, which is really excellent. It's the best kind of score, representing the actions and images on screen.

That being said, I did not particular enjoy spending time with any of these characters. If I intend to spend time with some unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things, I want to feel that there is a point. (Like laughter, in the case of Arrested Development.) Or it should make me feel something other than, "why did I watch that?" (Looking at you Antichrist.) I'll second those who posit the discussion is worthy and not the film.

Lastly, I can't help but feel that this is an Italian trash movie dressed up as an art film. Maybe it's just that aesthetic from Italian 1970s. Probably because I know Italian trash from the 70s better than non-trash. Ugh.

#14 raz

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Posted 24 September 2017 - 10:30 AM

As I was watching this movie I couldn't understand why it was nominated for The Canon. Then I listened to the episode, and was relieved that I hadn't missed something. I felt like I was watching a poorly written David Lynch film. I don't think that discussion alone should put a movie into the Canon.