You have to stick with Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson to get to the good stuff. At the outset, the material is not too promising. A film-maker (Potter playing herself) paces around her bare study, imagining pieces of her latest project, Rage – a bizarre piece of conceptual chic whose MTV-style images will have Australian viewers recalling the local TV music show of the same name.
Fortunately, Potter comes to grief trying to pitch Rage to the money-men of Los Angeles. At a loss, she finds herself drawn in a quite contrary direction. Observing with rapt admiration the magnificent tango dancer Pablo Verón on stage in Paris, Potter decides to become his student. In time, she will also become the lover of this much younger man, and finally his director.
The Tango Lesson is an extraordinarily romantic work coming from a director whose approach has too often been cerebral and mechanical. The scenes of Sally and Pablo's growing intimacy have a fragile beauty rare in cinema. Without overstating Pablo's inherent machismo, charismatic glamour or cultural exoticism, Potter nonetheless candidly explores the thrill and risk of her yearning for this Other.
Potter, as director, writer, co-star and even composer, will inevitably be labelled a narcissist by some viewers and reviewers. It is the way of our world that she is far more likely to attract this abuse than Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood. But, in the case of The Tango Lesson, I believe the narcissism charge is unwarranted.
The film sits snugly and knowingly within the history of what is known as personal cinema – a tradition that belongs especially to the realms of experimental filmmaking and video art. Although the film unabashedly draws from Potter's personal experience, it also plays an elegant game with various paradoxes of life transformed into art.
At one point, Sally and Pablo discuss the sad reality of having no money to make her cherished film project. "How can you make the film?" he asks, and she replies – as she leads him into an improvised dance – "we're making it right now". This expresses her dream of an art which is perpetually spontaneous and in-process – but of course we are viewing it within the context of an actually finished, carefully crafted film.
In another marvellous, reflexive coup, Potter gives us an almost painfully intimate (but entirely staged) scene in which herself and Pablo cry. Later, she asks him to recreate this moment for her movie, and he protests: "No, I don't want to be seen like that on screen".
As in masterpieces of the personal genre by Chantal Akerman or Philippe Garrel, Potter milks some of her finest effects from a certain air of amateurism: Sally and Pablo are both naturals rather than actors, and there is a hesitancy and frailty in their performances which is heartbreakingly poignant and real.
Potter's great and tender achievement in The Tango Lesson is to transform a work of personal cinema into a fairy tale full of dance, music and trembling desire. She deliberately suppresses a real-life fact about herself – her early background in dance – in order to make her transformation in the arms of Pablo seem quite magical. As these two artists become more intimate, and the walls between work and love start to crumble, their world becomes more and more like an enchanted, Hollywood musical. But never all the way: therein the poignant lyricism of this modern musical mutation.
With this modest experiment, Potter has transcended the stiffness and preciousness which fatally marred her earlier films (The Gold Diggers , Orlando ). The Tango Lesson possesses a delicacy and poetry that expresses itself, above all, in physical action – creating a universe in which everything from cooking and walking to loving and filming becomes part of one endless, cosmic dance.
© Adrian Martin October 1998