Films about dance, as opposed to dance films, are loving studies of rhythmical movement. The dance itself takes precedence over story, and sometimes even meaning.
Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura demonstrated the truth of this with his scintillating flamenco trilogy - “Blood Wedding” (1981), “Carmen” (1983) and “El Amor Brujo” (1986).
The first is an adaptation of the Garcia Lorca play, the second a contemporized variation on Bizet’s opera, and the third is Saura’s version of Manuel de Falla’s ballet “El Amor Brujo.” All emphasize the flamenco of Antonio Gades over storyline.
Sally Potter’s “The Tango Lesson” would seem capable of doing for the traditional Argentine dance what Saura did for flamenco. And whenever she points her camera at the great Pablo Veron, she succeeds.
Unfortunately, Potter insists on injecting herself into almost every frame with Veron. And the result is less of a look at the tango than a look at Potter, the filmmaker-as-subject, trying to learn the tango - and having to deal with the emotional conflicts that result.
None of this, of course, should come as a surprise. After all, the film’s name is “The Tango Lesson.” And based on her previous movie, the gender-blending meditation “Orlando,” it’s clear that Potter is more interested in exploring issues than in merely studying artistic expression.
The trouble is, the issues that Potter tackles seem pretentious and self-absorbed.
Overall, “The Tango Lesson” is about Potter - about her struggle to make a movie, about her struggle to remodel an apartment, about her frustrations over the marketing dilemma faced by all filmmakers (do I make movies about what I want or about what will sell?).
So she decides to take a break. After seeing Veron perform, Potter introduces herself and asks him to be her teacher. He teaches her the basics, and she promises to cast him in her movie, which now will center on her love of the dance.
She goes to Argentina, studies with other teachers, and learns more. Finally, she is good enough both to match her steps to Veron’s, and to bend this proud man to her filmmaker’s will.
Or is she?
Veron, who is as good at (and as arrogant about) his art as Potter obviously believes she is at hers, makes a fascinating subject. His moves are every bit as breathtaking as those of the flamenco specialist Gades.
A documentary about him likely would be terrific.
But this is no documentary, and Veron is never more than a mere supporting player. This is Potter’s film, first and last, from its overall black-and-white moodiness to its garish color inserts (which are meant to represent her failed project and, from the look of them, make it clear why failure was the only option).
Potter doesn’t even have the good taste to cast someone else to play her autobiographical self - a professional who, at the very least, could act.
Still, Potter’s greatest sin might be that, despite creating an intriguing look (thanks to the cinematography of Robby Muller) and despite benefitting from the obvious charisma of Veron, she tells us virtually nothing about the tango itself.
Instead, the film plays like an extended exercise in self-aggrandizement. It is is all about a moderately attractive, middle-age woman “living out her fantasies” by using her art, that of film director, to get close to a younger, sexier man.
Potter’s entitled to do this, of course. Men have been doing the converse for as long as anyone cares to remember.
It’s just too bad that, as “The Tango Lesson” proves, narcissism turns out to be an equal-opportunity offender.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Tango Lesson” ** Locations: Lincoln Heights Cinema Art Credits: Written and directed by Sally Potter, starring Sally Potter, Pablo Veron Running time: 1:41 Rating: PG