The Tango Lesson

The Tango Lesson


Reviewed by: Chris

Whether you judge The Tango Lesson to be as perfect as a film can get, or a self-indulgent autohagiography with nice legs and sets, is probably about your viewpoint. There is bound to be at least one reader who will disagree with either view. So I am inclined to look at what the director was trying to achieve. Sally Potter is an established arthouse filmmaker with particular interests in gender politics and dance. She also sings, writes and, in this film at least, acts.

Tango is a dance drawing heavily on passion. Unlike many dances, its emotional range includes jealousy and betrayal. When sparks fly, they are not just sparks of attraction. Male power and domination, silence that bites, and doomed love and destruction (hence the metaphor of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris). A woman never escapes the man’s embrace. The brilliance of her steps give the appearance of being entirely due to her partner’s masterful guidance. At one point in our movie, Potter’s partner, enraged, tells her she must ‘do nothing’ – he means nothing that doesn’t come from him.

Copy picture

It is a perfect dance to build dramatic metaphor around.

But Potter’s interest goes further. She wants to examine role reversal (this is the director who had a hit a few years earlier with the sexually ambiguous Orlando). In The Tango Lesson, she plays opposite a top tango dancer, mentally submitting to him in order to learn the dance. Her character is a film director, disillusioned with a Hollywood deal and looking for a new project. Could it be dance? In the second half, she enlists him to play in a film. The power position is reversed. He must follow instead of lead. He must take direction.

The success of this plot relies almost entirely on its real life elements. The circumstances in which the film was made mirror those depicted in the film-within-a-film. Names of principle characters are not changed. Potter does all her own dancing. Obvious commercial sell-outs are avoided.

So in terms of dancing and the gender politics, how well does the film perform?

The answer has to be “magnificently.” The tango scenes are among the best of any motion picture. Tango on the stage, tango on the streets. Tango in the dancehalls, tango on the water’s edge. Tango in rain, tango in snow. Potter described some of the technical challenges, saying that in the rain there were, “a limited number of takes possible due to the limited number of dry jeans.”

But the result is stunning. If you wanted a tango photo to hang over your fireplace, you would be spoilt for choice with stills from this film. Perfect mise-en-scene and impressive lighting make the film visually intoxicating. And when we hear Libertango – the most familiar of all tango tunes (played here by none other than Yo Yo Ma) – the energy explodes as Potter bursts from the dance studio, dancing with several men at once.

Cinematography is endlessly inventive. During a stage performance, the camera is positioned so that it faces the audience, dancers silhouetted by the dazzle of spotlights. “I wanted to show something of the visceral sensation of being onstage,” she says, “with the lights in your eyes.”

Gender analysis is equally successful. In Sex Is Comedy, Catherine Breillat showed a movie director having to exert psychological dexterity to handle tantrums from an adolescent male. Here, Potter deals with simple male chauvinism, and in a matter-of-fact rather than an unkind way. Pablo and his friends act in a ‘perfectly reasonable’ manner which Potter then exposes as unreasonable. They cherish a glamorised idea of filmmaking. She has to exert gentle authority when they ‘decide’ that they’ve waited long enough for someone to turn up; or when Pablo might not ‘want’ to shed a tear in her ‘little film.’ She must – and does – handle their unprofessional emotions, fears and ignorance, exactly as Pablo had to handle hers when she was learning to dance. And now it is against his every instinct. He must follow and let her lead.

Potter takes us beyond gender politics to the creative process. The film opens with her wiping a white table, then she sits at it with a blank sheet of paper. She starts to script, but discards one idea after another. Fast cuts to bursts of colour (in the Hollywood movie she had originally planned to make) illustrate action sequences of a movie style that makes money. They are like fragments of a finished film, waiting to be found. She hovers, waiting for the right idea to take form. “I know this moment well. It’s the most precious, delicate, terrifying moment in film-making. The void beckons, seductively. But at any moment, the pencil will touch the blank page and the first, irrevocable step will have been taken. Every such step can feel like an act of treachery against abstract and infinite perfection.”

That state of ‘becoming,’ the moment before any definite action is decided, parallels the state of preparedness a follower must have in dance. It is the philosophy that an early feminist-filmmaker, Maya Deren (also a dancer), propounded in connection with films (such as her Study In Choreography For The Camera). For her, it was an essential trait of being a woman, the ability to wait, as opposed to a man’s desire for immediacy. For Potter, who had focussed on dancing in her earlier life, the film becomes a voyage of discovery. “I remember suddenly what I always loved about dancing – the combination of vigorous endeavour, present timidness, and dedication to process – the sure knowledge that you never ‘arrive’, you are instead in a constant process of arrival. It is itself, and it is a metaphor: for learning, for living, for being.”

On the downside, there is not a lot of story. The Tango Lesson is Strictly Ballroom stripped of make-up, witticisms, clichés, overacting, and the pointless, predictable, but highly entertaining storyline. The Tango Lesson proudly states that the ideas (and the dancing) should be sufficient. Sadly for some people, of course, they won’t.

Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2009
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A film director explores the possibilities offered by tango.
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Director: Sally Potter

Writer: Sally Potter

Starring: Sally Potter, Pablo Verón, Carolina Iotti

Year: 1997

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, France, Argentina, Germany, Netherlands


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