Though the film is free-ranging by design, loosely structured like the titular dance, it lacks a centrifugal force that would hold the entire enterprise together.

A shy prison warden realizes he’s been practicing ballroom dancing with the girl of not one but two of the inmates he looks after in “Tango libre,” from Belgian helmer Frederic Fonteyne (“An Affair of Love”). Though the film is free-ranging by design, loosely structured like the titular dance, the screenplay lacks a centrifugal force that would hold the entire enterprise together, causing things to spin out of control, especially in the last reel. With comic thesp Francois Damiens (“Delicacy”) and “Affair” star Sergi Lopez headlining, this could hit not only fests but also some Franco-friendly arthouse dance floors.

Jean-Christophe (Damiens), nicknamed J.C., works at a prison in French-speaking Belgium. Two of the heavies incarcerated there are the Spanish Fernand (Lopez) and the Flemish Dominic (Jan Hammenecker), who occupy the same cell and committed a crime together seen in the pic’s prologue (which suggests their worst crime might be one against decent CGI).

Fernand is married to the earthy Alice (Anne Paulicevich), though it’s made clear early on that, together with Alice’s young teenage son, Antonio (Zacharie Chasseriaud), both Fernand and Dominic, a former flame of Alice’s, form a makeshift family. J.C. isn’t aware of any of this when he first gets to tango with Alice at one of his dances classes, though when he discovers the coincidence at work, the straight-laced employee informs her they can’t dance together anymore because it’s against prison rules.

Star and scribe Paulicevich, credited for the original screenplay subsequently adapted by her and scripter Philippe Blasband, sets up a lot of material rather quickly. Yet she seems unsure which p.o.v. or angle to approach her story from — or, since so much is going on, what the story even really is.

The film’s most terrific development is hothead Fernand’s reaction to the discovery that his wife has been dancing with one of the guards: He asks for dancing lessons from an Argentinean inmate. This leads to a fascinating and very cinematic tango-behind-bars yarn that gradually involves more of the prisoners and offers the pic its most interesting opportunities for drama and, in the dancing scenes set in the detention center, audiovisual pizzazz.

But other stories, again marbled with comedy, are also brewing: Antonio has found a gun at home; Alice needs to figure out which man to really love; and J.C. needs to try not to let any of these situations get out of hand. “Tango libre” struggles to keep all these balls in the air simultaneously and lets them drop completely for the out-of-left-field finale, which is great fun but doesn’t connect at all with what has come before in terms of genre or tone, swerving from something close to realism to the world of fantasy Western.

What keeps the film watchable is its mostly terrific cast, with Lopez and Hammenecker believable as friends, suggesting real humanity behind their tough-guy exteriors. Paulicevich and Chasseriaud display a solid mother-son bond, and their complicated rapport with the jailed men rings true. In an underwritten role, Damiens has a tendency to grimace too much in the early going (he was more credible in a serious role in “The Wolberg Family”), though he gradually finds his footing.

Using a solid mix of wider two-shots and closer handheld camerawork, d.p. Virginie Saint Martin makes it appreciably clear that all the thesps did their own dancing. Music is pre-existing material and, with the exception of a couple of faux-folksy English-language songs that accompany montage sequences, it’s well chosen.

Tango libre

Belgium-Luxembourg-France

Production

An Artemis Prods., Samsa Film, Liaison Cinematographique production, in association with Nord-Ouest Films, Minds Meet, RTBF. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Patrick Quinet, Claude Waringo. Co-producers, Serge Zeitoun, Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard, Tomas Leyers, Arlette Zylberberg. Directed by Frederic Fonteyne. Screenplay, Anne Paulicevich, Philippe Blasband, based on a screenplay by Paulicevich.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Virginie Saint Martin; editor, Ewin Ryckaert; production designer, Veronique Sacrez; costume designer, Catherine Marchand; sound (Dolby Digital), Carlo Thoss; line producer, Patrick Quinet. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 29, 2012. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Francois Damiens, Sergi Lopez, Anne Paulicevich, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Jan Hammenecker. (French, Spanish dialogue)

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