Filmmaker Sally Potter loves the tango. So much, in fact, that in her latest film, The Tango Lesson, she begins taking lessons from a virile young dancer in hopes of cha-cha-ing with him on stage. In exchange, Pablo, who has that movie-star glow in his eyes, slowly insinuates himself into Sally's latest film project.
"But what began as something on the sidelines of my life, something done for pleasure, for fun," confesses Potter, "gradually became an obsession."
Too bad all you get from the finished project is a lot of icy acting and unnecessarily drawn-out scenes.
In The Tango Lesson, acclaimed director Potter puts herself in front of the camera for an autobiographical story that is supposed to focus on some of the traditional elements of the tango - relationships, possession, loss and jealousy. All she ends up with is boredom, tediousness, arrogance and disappointment. The result is a bit surprising, considering Orlando, Potter's last film, was a cinematic feast of style, sight and sound.
Potter says the story behind The Tango Lesson went from exploring the joy of dance to hard work to the complexity of love. Frankly, there doesn't seem to be much love in the house.
In the film, Sally and Pablo (real-life dance, Pablo Veron) are a mismatched couple from the beginning. All they seem to do is argue and snap at each other. Additionally, Sally's cold, rakish demeanor is at ridiculous odds with Pablo's clichéd Latin lover prototype. You wonder how these two ever met.
Potter films her story in black and white, a nice touch for a documentary, which this is not. Even though the events are based in life, there seems to be no reason for the use of black and white besides being pretentiously arty for art's sake. The only color interludes are those used to signify another film Sally is working on about supermodels, sensationalism and murder. (Incidentally, that film seems a lot more interesting than the one it is within.)
Potter uses very little music in the film, which works against a project whose main focus is a dance. It just seems to fade everything out into nothing. Scenes are often painfully silent and drawn out to excessive lengths.
There really seems to be very little going on and not much of a point in The Tango Lesson, but a few good performances would have certainly helped it along. Sadly, we only get vague sketches of fussy characters who don't seem to care about anything one way or the other.
Potter is often wooden and inexpressive as her film director counterpart on screen. She's got about as much energy as a block of ice. Veron is a bit better on the technical side, but his hot-blooded character comes off as a barrage of stereotypes and clichés. He's like Paul Mercurio in Strictly Ballroom - without the grace, charisma or charm that carried that performance.
Perhaps the biggest problem with The Tango Lesson is that it is utterly devoid of joy or rapture in its exploration of dancing. Recent fare like Strictly Ballroom, Shall We Dance? or The Full Monty hit ecstatic highs through the sheer love of the steps, but The Tango Lesson is no such film. This may be a much more serious, somber dance, but it doesn't mean there's no fun to be had.
Potter and Veron never seem to enjoy what they're doing. They spend so much time being dramatic and dreary that the love of the dance gets lost along the way. The two stars have about as much chemistry as a mop and pail, making the tango sequences all wet.
Potter's pared down direction especially falters during the dance sequences. There's no rhythm, no movement and certainly no pleasure in the step. There are too many far-away shots that undermine the beauty of the tango and just look like cheesy dance competitions on television.
Potter is obviously going for something metaphorical here, but her point gets lost in all the artsy-fartsiness. Instead of celebrating the love of the dance, The Tango Lesson simply stumbles clumsily along a meandering, uninvolving path.