This month sees the rerelease of Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997) on both DVD and Blu-ray. Famous for her generation and gender-swapping 1992 drama Orlando, which starred Tilda Swinton, Potter is a director notorious for her reluctance to conform to the archetypal templates of Hollywood filmmaking. A director named Sally (Potter) visits Paris to work on her latest screenplay. It’s here she meets Pablo (Pablo Vernon), a Tango dancer who begins to teach her the art of this seductive dance – as they fall in love.
This quasi-autobiographical film exposes both the misconceptions of the creative process, whilst simultaneously examining the difficulties that face women in the film industry. The narrative thrust of The Tango Lesson comes from the eponymous dance, with its physical intimacy denoting the firm connection between art and cinema, whilst also presenting a romanticised image of the sizzling passion which many believe consumes an ‘artist’.
A robust dance which demands the man to lead whilst the woman finds herself unable to escape his grasp, the tango creates an archaic yet comprehensible metaphor for the film industry – with obsession and addiction exhibited through the rigid choreography of a male led dance, perfectly painting an accurate portrait of the struggle faced by many women filmmakers. Whilst the painterly-presented visual metaphors of The Tango Lesson successfully convey their message in a subtle, yet affecting way, the same cannot be said for Potter’s heavy-handed script.
Further hindered by her desire to star in the film herself – a decision clearly made to add gravitas to the film’s introspective subject matter – it’s clear Potter is more comfortable behind the camera. Whilst her abilities on the dance floor are unquestionable, the same cannot be said for her wooden acting – turning what should have been a heart-warming and deeply personal performance into something unbearably self indulgent and, to a certain degree, narcissistic.
Despite being exquisitely shot and flowing with an inescapably graceful stride that seems in accordance with the film’s titular dance, The Tango Lesson works far better as a deconstruction of the creative process than it does as a satire on the industry – a commendable, if not vexing example of egocentric art house cinema with an unwelcome abundance of hubris.