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TANGO LESSON, THE(director/writer: Sally Potter; cinematographer: Robby Müller; editor: Herve Schneid; cast: Sally Potter (Sally), Pablo Veron (Pablo), Gustavo Naveira (Gustavo), Fabian Salas (Fabian), David Toole (Fashion Designer), Peter Eyre (English Tango Fan), Olga Besio (Olga), Carlos Copello (Carlos), Carolina Iotti (Pablo’s Partner); Runtime: 102; Sony Classics; 1997-France /Argentina / UK)
“Most of the film had Potter and Veron dancing and that had me jumping with joy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Somehow this quirky, egocentric, fantasy black-and-white film about a British filmmaker learning to dance the tango from a master, works in an obscure way by getting us hooked on what’s going on. It is set in Paris, London, and Buenos Aires, and it might or might not be autobiographical of director-writer-songwriter-actress Sally Potter (“Orlando“). It works so well because the dancing was so natural and magnificently performed, even if the wistful romantic story never caught my imagination and the philosophizing about her being a Jew seemed more diverting than engrossing (in real-life she’s not Jewish but an avowed atheist who was only influenced by her Jewish neighbors and their culture when growing up in her parents’ house).

Potter was trained as a dancer and choreographer in London in the 1970s and in this film composes her original song compositions, which are quite good.

The 48-year-old Sally Potter (she plays herself) is filming in Paris a Technicolor thriller (it seemed like dreck and is probably some kind of personal statement Potter is making about Hollywood films). It’s about a legless fashion designer in a wheelchair murdering models dressed in brightly colored costumes. Sally will take a break from filming and attend a theatrical dance exhibition by the great Argentine tango master Pablo Veron (he plays himself), and afterwards she decides to get tango lessons from him. “I’ve always wanted to be in films,” says the thirtysomething Pablo. Sally counters, “I’ve always wanted to be a dancer.” It sounds like a trade-off in self-indulgences and all I can say, is why not! When Sally dances the tango in the film, that’s really her and not a double. And if she can dance the part, why not play the part!

For whatever arcane reason (or most likely no reason at all!), the story has twelve dance lessons which come to divide the film into chapters. The lessons are not necessarily lessons but show Sally as she becomes obsessed with the dance, with the subtleties of the music, and with her teacher. Sally returns to Paris after being disappointed that her Hollywood backers complained that it would be better for the box-office if the film was to be in English instead of French and that she should cast a different villain because it would be difficult to cast a legless person. Sally decides to abandon her Hollywood film project and make a film instead about the tango, and takes further lessons in Buenos Aires from friends of Pablo’s and becomes good enough to perform onstage with him when she returns to Paris.

Their romance and friendship becomes a battle of wills, which mirrors the way they dance. After they appear at a Paris theater Pablo critiques Sally’s dancing by stating that he wants her to follow, to completely surrender to him, complaining that she impedes his freedom. Sally shoots back, “You danced as a soloist — like a stranger — and I lost you.”

Somehow I couldn’t be convinced of their romance, in fact I never cared about it. It seemed empty, and to the bargain Sally’s no beauty. But…ah! those dancing scenes were tremendous, along with the penetrating cinematography of the great Robby Müller, giving the film such a stunning look. The film managed to look good and even though Pablo and Sally are no great shakes as actors, and their stiff romance was more pitiful than meaningful, the film had a bizarre strain — of this very uptight Sally learning how to loosen up and the sly Pablo jumping around like a fox at a hunt. It seemed to be a mix of reality and script, but hard to tell which was which.

When they weren’t dancing or figuring out what kind of arrangement they were going to have, such as if their dancing partnership would include any funny business, they discussed what it is like being a Jew. Pablo has never been comfortable with his Jewish roots and considers himself just a dancer. In his spare time, he is seen reading a biography on Marlon Brando (get it–he was in “The Last Tango in Paris”). She is seen reading Martin Buber’s 1923 philosophy book “I and Thou,” which she believes unlocks the spiritual meanings of the tango. Buber’s scholarly work delves into relationships: “The soul is not really united unless all the bodily energies, all the limbs of the body, are united.”

The film tries to make some connection between love and art and who is to be the follower and who the leader (artist!). It asks the spurious question, can two artists collaborate on any work if they both must lead! I couldn’t quite warm up to this art debate.

The film is short on plot, acting, and with getting me involved in the romance. But most of the film had Potter and Veron dancing and that had me jumping with joy; even believing that there was something spiritual to the tango, a dance which is a mixture of Cuban and European styles. It was created by the lower-classes and elevated to the status of the ballroom. It’s also a dance created in this century, that maybe is even akin to the rapturous Eastern European Klezmer music.

This is an inspiring dance film that through dance reflects one’s life and suffering. To understand that is to understand the tango. Another theme explored was, why not an older woman with a much younger guy!


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”