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[whitespace] The Tango Lesson
Push and Shove: Pablo Verone and Sally Potter practice their steps.

Sally Potter learns 'The Tango Lesson'

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW British import The Tango Lesson opens with a moment that will have writers in the audience feeling as if they're watching the horror-movie scene of the heroine about to open a basement door. Director Sally Potter (Orlando)--playing a brisk but shy middle-aged movie director named Sally--is sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, sharpening her pencil and lifting it slowly. I wanted to scream, "Don't look at the blank piece of paper!" but it was too late. She was caught in its horrible white gaze and as good as blocked already. Fighting writer's block, Sally makes tentative stabs at a new script, which is acted out for us in color as a contrast to her black-and-white life. The fragments of a movie-within-a-movie are morbidly symbolic; they are all about a legless fashion photographer whose models keep getting shot. Naturally, she has trouble financing this film (for once the Hollywood numskulls, whom Potter parodies here, seem to have some sense).

Visiting Paris for inspiration, Sally sees a performance by the tango dancer Pablo (Pablo Verone) and is overwhelmed with a desire to learn the dance herself. The rest of the film details her struggles with Pablo over his demand that she cease resisting on the dance floor. This is a problem tango instructors face when teaching that fiendishly complicated dance to Euro/American women; they don't submit completely and allow themselves to be led. It also becomes apparent that Pablo is putting up with the prickly Sally because of his own ambitions, which are suggested in a cut from Pablo in the bath reading a biography of Marlon Brando to a shot of Potter reading Martin Buber's I and Thou. Pablo nurses dreams of becoming a movie star--a field in which Sally must lead him, and he must submit to her direction.

Watching a dance film may not be as compelling as watching live dance, because there isn't the possibility of misstep, the tension of possible failure about to burst the polished surface. Though Potter became a very good tango dancer, the footage of her footwork is strictly for people who are deeply fascinated with tango. And the rest of the film is for those deeply fascinated with Potter. The midlife-crisis movie can be as enervating as the Gen-X angst movie--and for all the same reasons. In cinematographer Robby Müller's beautiful existential bubble, there's no sense of the outside world.

When Sally accuses Pablo of knowing nothing about cinema, she has an interesting point that is applicable to a lot of actor-directed movies. "You're so used to being looked at," she says, "that you don't how to look at anything yourself." But what actors do know is how to make themselves fascinating to look at, and Potter's creative crisis isn't compelling enough to share. The Tango Lesson is good-looking, inoffensive and wonderful for intense dance fans but soft and edgeless--an art-house Flashdance.

The Tango Lesson (PG; 101 min.), written and directed by Sally Potter, photographed by Robby Müller and starring Potter and Pablo Verone.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro.

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