A man and a woman meet regularly in an empty Paris apartment and have sex. They don’t know each other’s name, or anything about each other’s lives: the man insists on it. In there, they don’t need names, he says. They leave everything else behind and just bring to that apartment, some essence of themselves.
What he leaves behind is a shattered life: his wife has just committed suicide. His married life wasn’t all that rosy either: his wife cheated on him, and he knew it too. In fact, there’s even a strange kind of kinship between him and the other man. She, on the other hand, is a twenty-year old Parisienne who is about to get married. Her fiance is a filmmaker who is making some sort of documentary with her as the subject.
The idea is to meet regularly at the apartment for sex. And there’s a lot of that, to be sure. But somewhere in between, a real relationship also creeps in. And the sort of compartmentalization they try to achieve doesn’t work after a point. And in the end, when he accosts her and tries to start over with her in the real world, she shoots him.
There are things I understand about this movie, and things I don’t. The Brando character, for instance. It’s not like he is easy to understand or relate to, but after a point, you begin to get a feel for the way he thinks. He is basically a weak man, broken by life, particularly by his wife’s betrayal and her subsequent suicide. In the apartment, he plays the dominant role, maybe as a way of compensating for that. But it’s not just a gruff man you see there – he is capable of happiness and gentleness as well. For him, the gruffness is a form of defense, even against himself.
The woman, though, I couldn’t quite make out. Both physically and emotionally, she’s bared to the camera for most of the movie. But ironically, understanding this girl-woman is something I find a lot tougher than understanding the more closed, beneath-the-surface characterization of the man.
The two performances are fantastic. Brando seems to have a talent for playing characters who aren’t too likeable, to put it mildly, but end up being legendary in cinema history. Maria Schneider’s performance isn’t as prominent, but it is a solid one nonetheless. Being both a little girl and a woman and wildly seesawing betwen those two ends can’t be easy.
Four moments stand out in memory whenever I think of this movie. I shall talk about them here.
The first one comes just after Brando and Schneider have had sex for the first time. As they lie there, she rolls off, then clutches herself down there and curls up a bit. That moment will stand out forever in my mind as one of the most breathtakingly sexual moments ever filmed.
The second is a scene where the two of them mock-introduce themselves to each other with strange, animal sounds. There’s something very playful and romantic and gentle about that scene. For me, that was the moment that signaled that this was no longer just a purely sex thing for the two of them.
The third is the scene where Brando has a long monologue addressed to his wife’s corpse just before he breaks down. The intensity and pain he brings out in that scene is such that it is almost difficult to watch.
The fourth comes right at the end. After she shoots him, she sits alone, repeating the same few lines over and over again, ostensibly preparing herself for the questions the police would ask of her. The lines are: “I don’t even know his name. He is a madman, he followed me on the street. He tried to rape me.” Her eyes are impassive when she says most of those lines, but notice how there’s a little measure of pain that creeps into her eyes when says, “I don’t even know his name.”