[Screen It]


(1997) (Sally Potter, Pablo Veron) (PG)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Minor Minor Mild None *Minor
Minor None Minor None Mild
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
*Minor Minor None Minor *Mild

Drama: A film maker barters for tango lessons from an experienced dancer in exchange that he appear in one of her films.
Sally (SALLY POTTER) is an avante-garde film maker with a serious case of writer's block. Attending a dance performance, she sees a marvelous demonstration of the tango by renowned dancer, Pablo (PABLO VERON). Meeting him afterwards, she strikes a deal where he'll give her tango lessons in exchange for her casting him in one of her movies. Sally soon finds herself obsessed by her desire to learn the tango, and as she becomes more proficient, she realizes she could make a movie about the dance. As she and Pablo continually practice, they come closer as a team and as a couple. When the budding romance puts an awkward strain on their professional and personal relationship, they must decide what's best for both.
Unless they're interested in art house type films, or ones about dance, it's highly unlikely.
For brief language and some violent images.
  • SALLY POTTER essentially plays herself, a film maker who must struggle with allowing herself to be passive to Pablo's teaching methods.
  • PABLO VERON plays a masterful, yet somewhat conceited professional dancer. Beyond moments of being full of himself (and bing mean to Sally), he turns out to be an okay guy.


    OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
    People have always questioned whether movies -- and art in general -- imitate life, or whether life takes its cues from society's exposure to the arts. Adding more fuel to that debate's fire, we now offer "The Tango Lesson. Here we have a movie about a woman film maker who decides to make a movie about tango dancing. That's nothing special in particular, unless you factor in that the plot just so happens to coincide with the real life story of the film's director, Sally Potter (1993's "Orlando"). For not only did she direct this film and write its screenplay (as does her character in the movie), but she also composed the score and provided the vocals heard during the feature. Talk about an overachiever.

    On the other hand, some may also call that narcissism, in that she's directed a movie essentially about her directing a movie, casting herself as, well, herself. In addition, she didn't even differentiate her character's name from her own, and many of the performers play themselves in the film. Smearing the line between documentary and drama, Potter has created a film that's interesting to watch, but is so paper-thin in plot (beyond its forced cuteness of being a film about itself) that it ultimately gets boring long before the last tango (no, we're not talking about the Marlon Brando film).

    While there is a story a woman wants to make a film and barters dance lessons from a professional dancer in exchange for casting him in her movie that's about it. There are some semblances to a budding romance beyond their professional relationship, but it's so subtle and underdeveloped that it's more frustrating than compelling. You want something to happen between these two anything but instead you get the standard plot where they initially are attracted, almost have a romance, then fight, which finally leads to them getting back together again.

    Although that sounds substantial and is the typical breakdown for a romantically plotted movie, that's giving it more depth than what's really there. The film's broken into many numbered lessons (supposedly the progression of dance training), but symbolically these are supposed to be the "life lessons" Sally's learning. Some of it works, but many will probably confuse those titled breaks as just a linear progression in her dance lessons themselves.

    Fortunately, Potter focuses most of her attention on the tango itself, and that's when and where the film really shines. Much like a documentary, there are long and loving shots of the dancers and the dance itself. Potter's made sure the numbers are elegantly photographed (cinematographer Robby Muller's excellent lens work), and the sweeping camera moves are a nice alternative to the frenzied MTV style editing usually associated with any recent dance-oriented movie. Pablo Veron a dancer by trade is spectacular to watch and reminds one of a time years ago when Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire commanded the screen with their unbelievable moves.

    Veron has a great on screen charisma, and when given the chance to strut his stuff (not just in the tango, but in some fun "improv" numbers), is quite fun to watch in scenes he choreographed himself. The film nears spoofing itself, however, when the characters just start dancing at the drop of a hat (as in the old musicals, and recently, but adoringly spoofed in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You"), and then finally goes over the edge when it eventually "treats" us with Sally singing to Pablo in an old-fashioned number.

    The film definitely has a European "art house" feel to it. Obviously some of that comes from the fact that it's set in London, Paris and Buenos Aires, all of which gives it a strong international flair. Throw in the multilingual dialogue, use of subtitles, and the decision to shoot most of the film in black and white and one can't help but notice what begins to near serious pretentiousness. All of that, of course, adds to the narcissistic atmosphere permeating the film, and many may criticize Potter for going too far with her self-indulgence.

    Fortunately Potter's creative eye diffuses some of that, and many of the visuals are quite compelling to watch. The intrusion of the limited, but vivid, in color scenes is jarring, but that effectively matches the fictional scenes we're seeing. Throwing in a limber, but legless man with the fact that we don't initially know what we're seeing, and we can't help but wonder what's going on and what will happen next.

    The lack of a substantial story, however, diminishes that creative look and the movie takes on the feel of a documentary that's just a bit too long. The dance numbers aren't different enough to continually remain interesting, Veron isn't given enough opportunities to dazzle us with his improvisational numbers, and Sally (an accomplished dancer in real life) becomes way too proficient at the tango too quickly. This strains the believability factor, and therefore doesn't make the film as enjoyable to watch as other "learn to dance" films such as "Shall We Dance?" where the audience can readily identify with the would-be dancer's frustrations.

    Unlike that film, we never learn why Sally becomes so obsessed with learning this dance (the obvious reason would be that she wants to learn it to be able to film it correctly), or for that matter, much else about her or the other characters. Whereas this film certainly features more dance footage than any recent, similar production, it lacks the human quality that made "Shall We Dance?" such a hit with audiences. Had Potter put a little more emphasis on the people involved, this film would have made for a better drama. As it is, it stands closer to being an imaginatively filmed documentary instead of a "movie." Therefore, we give "The Tango Lesson" a 4 out of 10.

    There's very little to object to in this film that, minus a few elements, could easily have been rated G (and thus be confused with a children's film). 1 "s" word is the worst of the profanity and it's seen in subtitles. A few cinematic visions from the main character briefly show some muted violence where models are shot with a gun, but it's so non-graphic, abstract, and removed that it never seems real and is far less blatant than any action series on TV. Beyond a few moments where Pablo is mildly mean to Sally, there's nearly nothing else to object to. Of course few kids, if any, will want to see this film. If someone in your family does, however, you shouldn't find much that's objectionable.

  • People have wine after a dance performance.
  • Several men that Sally's with have some sort of drink in front of them.
  • People have drinks in a dance hall where Pablo has wine.
  • People have drinks after Pablo and Sally's first public dance performance.
  • A bandage covers a tiny, bloody wound on a person's foot in a dreamlike scene.
  • Some viewers may not like the fact that when asked by Pablo if she believes in God, Sally responds that she doesn't believe a supreme being is guiding her life. She then says, "Therefore, I suppose I'm an atheist," but also then says that she feels that she's Jewish.
  • Pablo stands up Sally on New Year's Eve, although he later claims it was just a misunderstanding.
  • Pablo is mean to Sally after their first public performance and criticizes her. Likewise he occasionally does so during their practice sessions.
  • None.
  • Handgun: Viewed in one scene and heard in several others where fashion models are shot (not for real and all done in the brief, dreamlike visions that Sally has).
  • Pablo stretches himself across the handrails of a moving sidewalk (a horizontal escalator) so that he's essentially lying across the opening below him.
  • Pablo does a few dance moves where he runs and dances up a wall, and another where he dances on top of a fireplace mantle.
  • None.
  • There are a few moments where some ominous sounding music occasionally filters in.
  • None.
  • 1 "s" word (seen in subtitles) and 1 "Oh God" are used as exclamations.
  • We briefly see a woman walk by at a pool wearing a skimpy bikini and as she walks away her bare buttocks (in a thong-like bottom) can be seen in the distance.
  • Pablo smokes in one scene.
  • A woman in a dance hall smokes.
  • None.
  • The different styles of dance across the world.
  • There are a few dreamlike scenes (actually Sally envisioning her movie scenes in her head) where fashion models are shot. For most of them we just hear a gunshot and see the model fall over (on the ground, down a set of stairs, and another into a body of water), but we do see another model holding a handgun in one. None of it's even remotely graphic, and it's so brief it's nearly surreal.
  • Mad at himself and at Sally, Pablo heaves his cell phone across the room after she hangs up.

  • Reviewed December 4, 1997

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