THE TANGO LESSON (France, Argentine, UK, 1997) *** 1/2
I am semi-fascinated by Argentina, its unusual "European" culture and its language. Spanish speakers of other lands often put down Argentine Spanish, but it has its own kind of music the way it sings, pronounces "yo" as "zho," stretches out "horror" into "horrrror," and emotes in the tango.
The tango, a 4/4 time dance, was born in the last two decades of the 19th century, in low-class (including brothel) districts of Buenos Aires, as a mix of European and perhaps Cuban dances and the sex-charged "milonga." It became a craze in Argentina and, by the First World War, in Europe too. Most crazes fade, but not the tango. It evolved, assumed various identities over the the years. To this day it thrives in Argentina as well as among aficionados in many countries.
In "The Tango Lesson" Sally Potter gathers several big threads of her life into a film both personal and documentary-like. She has been a filmmaker of shorts since her teens, a professional dancer and choreographer with major credits, a performance artist, theater director, lyricist, singer, scriptwriter, feature-movie maker. Her film adaptation of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" (1992) brought her international fame. I don't know about fortune.
A few years ago Ms. Potter was in the process of writing a movie script. As the pressures of this work built up she decided to take tango lessons as relaxation. "But what began as something on the sidelines of my life -- something done for pleasure, for fun --gradually became an obsession. Then the obsession became a fire fueling a new film. I abandoned "Rage," the script I was writing, and started to work on what was to become The Tango Lesson."
The movie parallels that situation. We actually see bits of the soon-to-be-abandoned project in strong colors, the only ones in the black-and-white "The Tango Lesson." As visualized by director-writer Sally, the scenes are weird.
The fashion models of a legless "couturier" in a wheelchair are being shot by cameras and, one by one, shot with a gun. The location is Paris, on or near the Seine river. The bizarre, unexplained project looks to me like a takeoff, a joke on both movie-making and the public. Also perhaps a perverse reference to films like the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn "Funny Face" with its fashion shows and the May-December affair which will be somewhat reflected in the Sally-Pablo connection to come? (That's a far-fetched supposition but since the birth of the New Wave's movie-conscious cinema one never knows what allusions trot in the heads of filmmakers).
Exhausted by her efforts, Sally wanders into a tango performance in a Paris theater. Immediately enthralled, she asks the male partner to give her lessons. He is the real Pablo Veron, a celebrity, an Argentinian tango dancer who really does work in Paris.
Veron accepts Sally as student. He's a demanding task-master. There's an unstressed quid pro quo here. "Teach me the tango and I may put you in a movie."
"The Tango Lesson" will be, from now on, divided into a dozen chapters: The First Lesson, The Second Lesson and so on. These are episodes since not all lessons are, strictly speaking, dance lessons but life lessons.
Sally learns well. Personal bonds are added to the professional ones but we never know how far the "affair" goes, whether or not she becomes the mistress of her master. She is close to 50, he is 35 or so.
There is nothing deja vu about the relationship. The rapport includes real-life events, such as switching from the tango and its main instrument (the bandoneon) to a French accordion as the couple dances a very Gallic "valse musette" by the Seine; such as tango interludes in dance halls; such as walks through the streets.
In a conversation in a cafe, we learn more about them as they talk of religion. She: "I am an atheist. I feel I'm a Jew." He: "I am a dancer... And a Jew." (At this point the music becomes discreet klezmer-style). The scene is short, like all the episodes or interludes. These make their points well and have true-to-life "unscripted" dialogue.
Hollywood is interested in Sally's film. She flies there to pitch its ridiculous story. The movie people don't like the fact that the legless clothes designer will be hard to cast, that the dialogue will be in French, therefore a loser at the box-office. It's a very funny, low-key satirical short episode.
Back in Paris, Sally decides to abandon her movie and do one on the tango. What we get is a game of mirrors about a film-to-be which is the film-in progress. It's an original concept, and it works.
Parallels and interpenetrations of life, love and the pursuit of artistic happiness are numerous and subtle. The couple experience tensions. Pablo comes out clearly with the old adage that it is is bad to mix the professional and the personal. He adds: "We should sublimate our mutual feelings in our work." Sally is increasingly frustrated by Pablo's criticisms of her dance, and feels some jealousy of Pablo after he tangoes with his ex-partner. He states his position: "I don't want victims, broken hearts, dramas."
Sally makes her official debut in public, with Pablo, in a Paris theater. His post-mortem devastates her: "You should do nothing when you dance. Just follow. Otherwise you destroy my freedom, my liberty "-- a revealing comment about Pablo but even more about the macho nature of the tango.
They fight, make up, fly to Buenos Aires. As they exit a taxi they do a spontaneous "dancing in the rain" (memories of Gene Kelly!). Sally, I believe, delivers her best "performance." Perhaps this is a comment of dancing without the pressure of a public. But then again, perhaps not.
There's more. It involves an enthusiastic welcome by the Porteno (what Buenos Aires denizens are called) tango-people :"After 7 years our great Pablito Veron has returned." It involves art and life; Pablo's naive conception of what film actors do; additional tensions; a colorful, realistic search for a dance studio to rent by the couple plus two of Pablo's local friends; an uncomfortable visit to a synagogue...There is no closure, no neat wrap-up. There seldom is in real life.
Robbie Muller's photography here is superior precisely because of its matter-of-fact look that refuses to be exquisite. The editing is imaginative yet not self-conscious. The film is multicultural and multilingual: Spanish is spoken but mostly French and English to which Sally and Pablo switch seamlessly. The fact that the man is an amateur actor, that Sally (in her first appearance in one of her movies) is neither a beauty nor an overt emoter adds another element of newness. And I mean newness, not novelty.