'Tango Lesson' Struggles to Get Steps Right


Given the amount of ego essential to sustaining the careers of filmmakers, it's surprising that more movies aren't made as self-portraits. At least, it's surprising until you suffer through something like Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson."

Potter, a British director ("Orlando"), performance artist and former dancer, has trained the script and camera on herself with such a steady, self-admiring gaze, it almost forces you to look away. What she sees--a woman of intellectual depth and sensitivity, professional integrity, sensuality, grace, courage, determination and talent--is not particularly what we see, which is a woman smothering herself with her own affection.

"The Tango Lesson" is done as a reflective docudrama, chronicling Potter's obsession with learning the tango. She has worked up a story of sorts, about herself and her relationship with Pablo Veron (as himself), the tango dancer she engages for lessons. Soon, they are getting not only their feet tangled up, but their emotions. Through most of the film, Sally and Pablo confine their passions to the dance floor, alternately fighting and making love.

Potter can tango, and with the flowing black-and-white cinematography of Robby Muller, the graceful editing of Herve Schneid, and a wonderful tango soundtrack, the dance sequences are pleasurable enough to watch. But in the end, tango is the movie's only strength, and for those of us compelled to watch even vanity productions, we can be thankful that Potter didn't decide to learn the polka.

* MPAA rating: PG, for brief language and some violent images. Times guidelines: Passionate, but fully clothed, dance scenes. Violent images occur in a movie-within-a-movie.


'The Tango Lesson'

Sally Potter: Sally

Morgane Maugran: Red Model

Carolina Iotti: Pablo's partner

Geraldine Maillet: Yellow Model

Katerina Mechera: Blue Model

David Toole: Fashion Designer

Pablo Veron: Pablo

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Sally Potter. Producers Simon Benzakein, Oscar Kramer. Cinematographer Robby Muller. Editor Herve Schneid. Costumes John Krausa, Paul Minter. Music Fred Frith, Potter. Production design Carlos Conti. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

* Opens Thursday exclusively at Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581; Edwards South Coast Village, 1561 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 540-0594; and the State, 770 E. Colorado Blvd., (818) 792-3540.

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