Veteran Spanish director Carlos Saura has become a specialist in what might be called the performance film: something between a concert documentary and a Hollywood musical.
He showed off his trademark style best in Sevillanas (1992) and Flamenco (1995): magnificent singers and dancers moving within an abstract space defined by shifting white screens and the superbly intricate lighting of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Occasionally, however, Saura clearly becomes nostalgic for the days when he was considered the sort of arthouse director who could combine human tragedy with political allegory (as in Raise Ravens, 1975).
And so he devises a structure which wraps the singing and dancing within some sort of plot – usually a trickily reflexive one, in which a handsome, older artist-figure stands for the filmmaker, and the melodrama of art mirrors and intersects with the vicissitudes of real life.
Tango is Saura's clumsiest effort at creating a hybrid of this sort. For a while, the structure is simple: the romantic problems of Mario (Miguel Angel Sola), as he pines for his ex-partner Laura (Cecilia Narova) and flirts with the much younger Elena (Mia Maestro), intertwine with the dance-spectacular he is preparing to capture on film. Since both women in his life appear in his movie, the stage is set for some fiery tango sparring.
At a certain point, for no clear reason, Mario snaps. He grows tired of the infernal triangle of art, love and sex, and turns his production into a serious, sombre reflection on world history. "I'm searching for ideas in Goya's sketches", he pompously announces – introducing a garishly kitsch dance number about political torture and oppression. From here, Tango slides into pure boredom.
Saura's little games with reflexivity have a very dated air, and the tangle of artifice and reality produces some unintentionally hilarious moments – such as when a nearby sound-effects crew provides strident accompaniment to the tender lovemaking of Mario and Elena.
In another memorable scene, a crazy lesbian fantasy unreeling in Mario's head allows Storaro to remind us all of the time that he worked on Bertolucci's best films (such as The Conformist, 1970) – as opposed to Saura's worst.
Still, one cannot deny that the music and dancing are great. Lalo Schifrin (of Mission: Impossible fame) has composed many splendid new tangos for the film, and the choreography that accompanies them is vigorous, if sometimes rather fussily filmed.
A purely musical highlight comes when a band featuring some very old men play an astonishingly intricate tango with hardly a trace of effort; to balance this virtuosity, Saura includes a charming scene of young children learning to dance.
The teacher looks at a young couple and remarks: "She's got natural rhythm, and he's an oaf, but she won't dance with anyone but him". Our world-weary artist-hero replies: "Isn't that always the way?"
© Adrian Martin February 1999