A bold attempt to explore personal experience in a self-exposed, docu-fictional dramatic context, “The Tango Lesson” is unrelenting in its fascination with its writer-director-star. While Sally Potter’s “Orlando” was a strikingly designed, original reading of the Virginia Woolf novel, marred by the occasional pretentious flight of fancy, her insubstantial new feature lets those instincts run to self-indulgent extremes. Sleek B&W visuals and the sexy rhythms of the celebrated dance might help muster some minor arthouse trade, but Sony Classics can expect to be nudged off the dance floor after a quick turn. Premiering in Venice, the pic cleaved audiences neatly into adore or abhor camps.
A filmmaker identified simply as Sally (Potter) sits in her stark Paris pad agonizing over the script of “Rage,” a $ 20 million treatise on beauty and the glamorization of death. Flashes of color show her vision of the pic, about a legless, wheelchair-bound fashion designer and a series of towering models who are murdered one by one. Between writing spells, Sally attends a tango concert, later approaching star dancer Pablo (Pablo Veron) about taking lessons.
When maintenance work on her apartment forces her to vacate, she travels to Argentina, where she continues her lessons and hangs out in tango halls. Back in Paris, she takes up again with Pablo, and romance begins to blossom as she grooms him for a screen role. Soon after, she leaves again for Los Angeles to meet with producers, who immediately cramp her artistic freedom, prompting her to back off. While the film-project strand plays merely as a show of visual flashiness with easy digs at Hollywood as creative wasteland, it at least provides some distraction from Potter’s navel-gazing. When “Rage” is killed off, so is any kind of relief from what is essentially an elaborate home movie.
Now free to concentrate on her moves, Sally accepts Pablo’s invitation to dance onstage with him after a split from his regular partner (Carolina Iotti). The couple fight continually, however, with Sally’s natural tendency to lead causing problems that postpone their eventual discovery of harmony on the dance floor and in the romantic arena. Not much else happens, aside from another Buenos Aires trip, the broaching of some questions about being Jewish, which go nowhere, and a burst of song straight out of a musical in the closing act.
Potter is no Tilda Swinton. Center-screen almost the entire time, her pinched look does little to bridge her distance from the audience. Veron is a little more expressive, in part due to his natural intensity, but both leads deliver the stilted dialogue in flat monotones.
Where this vanity exercise does deliver is visually. Robby Muller’s cool, mobile B&W lensing and Herve Schneid’s sharp editing make the tango scenes hypnotic, and while these never quite match the grace, energy and precision of Veron and Iotti’s early exhibition, Potter is no slouch in the dance department. An arresting scene in which she’s partnered with three men plays like a ripe sex fantasy.