The Tango Lesson

Director: Sally Potter
Year: 1997
Country: UK
Running time: 102 mins

Production co: Adventure Pictures
Producer: Christopher Sheppard
Screenplay: Sally Potter
Photography: Robby Müller
Editor: Hervé Schneid
Production designer: Graciela Oderigo
Costume designer: Paul Minter
Sound: Jean-Paul Mugel, Gérard Hardy
Music: Sally Potter, Fred Firth
In English, French and Spanish with English subtitles

Sally: Sally Potter
Pablo: Pablo Veron
Gustavo: Gustavo Naveira
Fabian: Fabian Salas
Fashion designer: David Toole
Pablo’s partner: Carolina Iotti
Carlos: Carlos Copello
English tango fan: Peter Eyre

Festivals: Venice, Toronto, London 1997
The Tango Lesson, based on real experiences from Potter’s life, is a significant personal risk, one intensified by Potter’s decision to play herself on screen. Shot mostly in exquisite black and white by veteran cinematographer Robby Müller, it dramatises/documents Potter’s fascination with the Argentinian tango. The film shows her single-minded desire to learn the dance and her fluctuating relationship with her teacher/partner Pablo Veron (a real-life tango star, also playing himself) who comes across as macho, predictably over-accustomed to adulation, and prone to giving ego-bruising criticism of the older, female Potter…

“Its real richness lies in the multilayered themes which Potter’s immersion in the dance allows her to explore. She has written that the film is about: ‘the attraction between opposites: between Anglo-Saxon and Latin-American cultures; between male and female; between the watcher and watched… [and] about power.’ Obviously, The Tango Lesson is also about the imbalance of power between man and woman – a theme for which the tango itself stands as potent metaphor.

“To be a satisfactory tango partner, a woman must learn to ‘do nothing’, to follow. When Sally, used to taking charge as a film director, fails to achieve this passivity, Pablo rages that she has ‘destroy[ed] [his] freedom to move’. But more interestingly, The Tango Lesson is also an exploration of the relationships between pleasure and work, life and art. Rather than dramatising the distance between rehearsal and performance, inspiration and artefact, The Tango Lesson constantly continuity-edits them together. Crucially, Pablo’s insistence that personal and professional relationships should be kept distinct results in the disintegration of his relationship with Sally.

“Thus our uncertainty about whether Potter’s presence on screen is personal or professional, and the related ‘problem’ the film seems to pose – why, some might ask, has Potter pursued this personal project rather than a more mainstream movie? – are exactly the subjects The Tango Lesson seeks to explore.” — Claire Monk, Sight and Sound, 12/97