Six Damn Fine Degrees #87: Do it anyway: The Tango Lesson

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

When I first saw Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, around the turn of the millennium, it struck me as overly sentimental, and rather simple. Indulgent even. Which is to say I probably did not get it, even if I immediately bought the soundtrack and played it incessantly.

The story itself is quite straightforward. Sally (Sally Potter), a writer-director in the film industry, spontaneously decides to join a performance by the famous dancer Pablo (Pablo Verón) and falls in love with the tango. We meet her as she sits in her immaculate white apartment, behind an immaculately cleaned white table, a stack of blank paper and a sharpened pencil in front of her. She is preparing to write a script about beauty and death. We see snippets of the story she has in her head. Models swanning around in elaborate coloured dresses are being murdered one by one. And while we watch her write in pristine black and white, the story she is struggling to put into words is in opulent colour. During the process she gets reacquainted with the tango and she approaches Pablo after a performance. ”You give…,” she tells him, “but not too much. Your presence on stage is like an actor on film.” He inquires whether she works in film. Yes, she says. Does he give tango lessons, she asks. Yes, he says, and the deal is struck.

Inevitably, in a story such as this, they fall in love. Though slowly, and with a sense of inevitability. Their first tango lesson is awkward. He has forgotten their appointment and welcomes her, dishevelled, into his very messy studio. (If there were any doubt as to his general origins, the mate he sips from clinches the matter.) When afterwards Sally discovers a crack in her floor – the metaphors, too, are quite straightforward – a structural problem with the house is discovered, and she decides to visit Argentina while her house is being renovated. There she will study the tango with two coaches, both consummate dancers. She improves markedly, even though her instructor still prudently covers his family jewels with his hand to protect them from the spirited kicks that are part of the choreography. More importantly, she frequents dance studios, where apparently it is customary to dance with whoever asks her. The intimacy of the dance scenes is striking. Gentlemen of all shapes, ages and sizes dance with her, and she approaches them all with the same openness. With one of them, Gustavo, she develops a particular rapport. When she has improved to her own satisfaction, she returns to Pablo and the affair begins.

If the above makes it sound like a simple Hollywood love story, it is no such thing. Sally Potter casts herself as the lead in her mid-forties. Her male counterpart is not an actor, but first and foremost a dancer (and a deservedly famous one). And while she does use actors in the film, most of the characters are tango luminaries, such as Gustavo Naveira as mentioned above, deeply rooted in the dance and its significance. It is gorgeously shot by Robbie Müller (Paris, Texas, Breaking the Waves), in impeccable black and white. A testament to a filmmaker who not only looks, but tries to see. She loves, as her character puts it, with her eyes.

She is on firmer ground when she decides to make a film about the tango, this very film of course, and so the dynamic between Sally and Pablo becomes an emotional wrestling match about who leads and who should follow. Love soon becomes work, and both passion and identity are subsumed by performance. Their love affair, a way to play out their respective fantasies, barely holds up in light of the day-to-day.

Potter herself is, of course, a trained dancer. And she brings a workaday knowledge to this film of endless practising, joys, failures, insecurities and clashing temperaments. The central conflict starts playing out in the dance itself, as she struggles to claim her space. This, clearly, is her personal story: and that comes with drawbacks. The dialogue is often stilted and so is some of the acting. In part, it is unapologetically soppy, and while by intervals it seems almost esoteric: for all the arthouse gloss, some of it feels a bit pat. But for those with an eye for detail, there is so much to enjoy, quite apart from the divine dancing and the beautiful cinematography. The images of her trying to work at her white table in the middle of a house falling down about her ears. Her poolside interview in Hollywood where, in her formal suit, she tries to defend the film she is struggling to complete, as bikini-clad women mill about. (When a possible financier asks pointedly why one of her main characters is legless, she retorts: “Why not?”. Their lame excuse of ‘difficulties in casting’ rendered even lamer as Dave Toole is himself cast in this very film.) Her learning to walk. The way her journey starts to reflect in the script she is writing, through small details, like sore feet and models en pointe.

And for all its clanging analogies, it asks some very valid questions. How do we limit submission? Who are we to each other, or to ourselves? Are we at home anywhere at all, and where are we going, if we have no roots? “Where are you?” the characters keep asking each other. They may well ask “who”. So while at first glance, as several reviewers state, the film may seem to be about gender dynamics and control, it seems to me to be about identity first and foremost.

Quite a few years have passed since I first saw the film. And it would be a fair statement to say that while the film itself did not grow on me per se, I did grow towards it. For all its soppiness, it is a brave move to put yourself on screen at 46, among the best performers in the world, to rediscover how your very identity informs both your passions and your choices. How age forces you to own those choices, even if the risks you take may, at first glance, seem irresponsible. Nowadays, I am closer to Potter’s age when she made the picture, than I am to my own age when I first saw it. And despite its faults, its simple message seems essential to me: embrace the time you have left. And if people like former-me get all eye-rolly over your sappy song at the ending, or feel you’re obvious, sentimental and perhaps even a bit self-indulgent, ignore them. All the more power to you for doing it anyway.

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