The Tango Lesson Review

There have been many attempts in cinema history to capture the mystery, allure and eroticism of the tango on the screen. Leonard Schrader’s 'Naked Tango' examined the darker, violent side of the origins of the dance, while Carlos Saura’s more recent 'Tango' may be the definitive representation of the dance on the screen so far. Sally Potter’s Tango Lesson however, has all the passion and eroticism of the Matthew Perry film 'Three to Tango'.

Sally Potter’s third feature film as a director, following the acclaimed but rather over-rated Orlando (1992), is a massive exercise in self-indulgence and egotism. She not only writes and directs, she plays the leading role in the film, dances the tangos, and even wrote the lyrics for a tango which she sings herself (badly) at the end of the film. How anyone ever agreed to finance this obvious vanity project is beyond me.

The plot is practically non-existent. Fact and fantasy blur together as Sally (Sally Potter), struggling to write the script for her new film meets a tango dancer in Paris, Pablo (Pablo Veron), takes dance lessons and then follows her heart and decides to make a film (the one we are now watching) about making a film of her relationship with Veron and her experiences as a tango dancer. When dancing the tango Veron leads because he is a man, but Sally has to teach him to concede his masculine pride to her because she is the film-maker and, when it comes to film-making, she leads. I can’t believe he trusted her on that one!

If the plot is wafer-thin, the dialogue is clichéd and the delivery stilted and awkward. (Sample dialogue, as Sally and Pablo walk along the banks of the Seine near Notre Dame:
Sally: "How did you choose the tango?"
Pablo: "I didn’t choose the tango, the tango chose me.")
Sally Potter most emphatically cannot act. This does not help the film. On the occasions she is called upon to look hurt, confused, moved, in love – we get the same dreamy, blank, misty-eyed expression on her face, photographed flatteringly in soft focus. It is also unfortunate, from my point of view, that she vaguely resembles Margaret Thatcher, as this may also have coloured my judgement and any sympathy I may have had for her as a character.

Where the film is at least partially successful is in the photography of the dance scenes. The majority of the film is photographed in black and white and the cinematography, by Robbie Müller, is exquisite. While the settings are romanticised and unoriginal (a dance on the banks of the Seine in Paris, getting out of a taxi to dance in a thunderous downpour on the back streets of Buenos Aires) they are beautifully lit, shot, choreographed and danced. The ensemble dance scene at the end of the film is remarkable and exhilarating and it was almost worth sitting through the film to see. I have to say however, that watching this film was the longest 97 minutes I have ever spent in front of a TV screen. I was almost going to say that Sally Potter is extremely brave to display her passions and obsessions on the screen like this, but frankly I was embarrassed for the director at the mawkish sentimentality evident throughout the film and I cringed and winced when she started to sing her maudlin love-song towards the end of the film. Excruciating.

"Travelling man, man of my heart,
Man on stage, man of his art.
You are me and I am you,
One is one and one are two"

It’s hard to find fault technically with Artificial Eye’s release of this DVD. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the predominately black and white film is crisp and sharp. Grain is evident and inevitable in interior shots under artificial light, but this adds to the texture of the black and white photography. Colour sections (scenes from a potentially much more interesting but abandoned script about models being stalked by a killer) are vivid and bright in contrast to the rest of the film. The sound is the usual Dolby Digital 2.0 and this is more than adequate for the film. Non-removable subtitles are included when the dialogue switches to French and Spanish. The 14 chapters follow the film’s breakdown into 12 Lessons with chapters for the main and end titles.

There are a few extras included. There is a music video of Yo-Yo Ma performing a song from the soundtrack, the original theatrical trailer, some behind the scenes photos rather than stills from the film and extensive production notes by the director which only puts into words the themes and ideas about the tango that should have been implicit in the film.

There is a good film in here somewhere and there is potential for a good film to be made about the tango. Letting her own English female sensibilities, romanticism and egotism intrude into a film that is supposed to be about Latin passions is a grave and fundamental miscalculation by the director and it detracts from what could potentially have been a very good film indeed. It could be argued that the film is not about the dance itself but the relationship of a dancer and a film-maker and their learning to trust each other in their respective strengths and professions. If that is the case, then the film has even less to say to the general public and its self-referential nature speaks volumes for the egocentricity of the director.

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