It was a deal of exquisite simplicity: When British film director Sally Potter fell in love with the tango, she cornered one of its leading exponents, Argentine Pablo Veron, and told him: "Teach me to tango--and I'll make you a film star."
Did Veron imagine he would be romancing a succession of young, statuesque Hollywood starlets on screen? It is unclear. But in any case he acquiesced--and thus, a film, Potter's "The Tango Lesson," was born.
In the end, Veron's co-star turned out to be Potter herself--5 feet, 3 inches tall, 47 years old and also making her screen debut.
The film is the story of their mutual tutelage. Potter plays herself as a character, a director called Sally trying to write a Hollywood script. After seeing Veron dance on stage in Paris, she ditches her original script and resolves to make a film about tango.
This happened in real life, after the 1993 release of "Orlando," Potter's visually stunning adaptation of Virginia Woolf's gender-bending fantasia, with Tilda Swinton as its hero/heroine. "Orlando" was a surprise international art-house hit--and suddenly Hollywood became hugely interested in Potter.
"I was writing a thriller called 'Rage,' set in the fashion industry," she says. "There were American backers, budgets were talked about, it was quite far advanced. But I resigned from my own film.
"I wasn't sure I could live with violence and death in the beauty industry for two years of my life--there was a critical, angry driving force behind the script. Meanwhile, I was falling in love with the tango, and it seemed much more appealing to work with something quite the opposite--something tender, intimate, non-ironic."
Veron duly taught her to tango while she trained him to act on film. Both pupils learned swiftly; 18 months later, the broodingly handsome Veron had real film presence, while former dance student Potter became so expert at the tango, she appeared professionally with him on stage.
So when the time came to cast actresses opposite Veron, Potter faced a dilemma; it would take two years to make anyone look good enough dancing the tango on film. Anyone, that is, but herself.
"I had no ambition to act in any film, let alone one of my own," she says. "I wept when I first saw myself on a screen test, because of how I look." She told her cinematographer, the great Robby Muller ("Breaking the Waves," "Paris, Texas") she wanted to back out: "He said, 'Sally, don't you realize, we're used to seeing women in their 20s in films as normal. We're not used to lived-in female faces on screen. Let's go with it.' "
In fact Potter is a vivacious, attractive woman--slim, trim, radiating health, with cascades of wavy auburn hair; laugh lines around her eyes betray a sharp, self-deprecating humor. But her well-scrubbed English looks and her age distance her from Hollywood notions of sex appeal. And she appears in "The Tango Lesson" much as she looks in life.
"Almost no makeup," she recalls. "No glamorizing lights or soft filters." Yet a few American critics have attacked her for vanity in casting herself. "If only they knew," she says, sharply. "Often I'd have three or four hours' sleep, arrive on set at 4:30 a.m., do a close-up, and make it a point of honor never to change a shot to satisfy any gratuitous narcissism. Then I'd concentrate my energy on making Pablo look great."
She also had an agenda for appearing in her own film--"a minor bit of trailblazing," as she puts it. "I felt the only way inside the tango was to have a thoroughly English woman making herself vulnerable as she takes the first steps into the heart of another culture.
"How could I show that the tango isn't about being young, thin and wearing Lycra? To have two characters of different ages dancing together. [She is some 15 years older than Veron.] And to make it an alchemical meeting point where age after a while becomes irrelevant."
In "The Tango Lesson" Potter and Veron (or, as she says teasingly, "the characters who play them") have a tempestuous relationship--with both tender moments and bitter squabbles. Which raises the question: Did they really have a love affair?
"In real life, do you mean?" says Potter, eyes dancing. "Oh, but about this my lips are totally sealed."
Why? "Well, why not? What I'm trying to portray in the film is a relationship you can't quite get a grasp of. Is it between a director and an actor? Is it between one actor or another? Or between two cultures? Or is it Sally and Pablo in real life? In other words, what is love? It's the complex layering of connections between these two individuals.
"If you reduce it to yes, they did, or no, they didn't have an off-screen romance, it robs the film of its vitality, its blood."
That seems to be the end of the matter. But then she says something intriguing: "Anyway, I'm not really sure anymore."
Excuse me? "I'm not sure how to define what a love affair is anymore. If, for instance, you have a love affair but don't have sex for six months, is that not love? I'm not saying things did or didn't happen between me and Pablo. And I won't say. But there's so many ways of defining love, sexuality and sublimation."
Two other aspects of "The Tango Lesson" have vexed critics. One is that Potter has exercised total control--she not only is the film's writer, director and star, she even sings a song in the film's final scene, which she composed herself. "How dare she?" Potter says, imitating the hostile critics' tone of voice. "Egomaniac!"
The last source of irritation is a scene by a pool in Los Angeles where Potter sits with three American executives trying in vain to persuade her to make her film "Rage" more commercial. The scene certainly leaves her vulnerable to charges of artistic snobbery.
"I can see why people might think that," she says with a sigh. "But I've actually taken quotes from meetings I've had, and toned them down. Obviously I haven't toned them down enough, because people have taken it as a caricature.
"I'm sorry if the scene comes across as me being superior. In fact I was criticizing myself--I didn't like the script I'd written. And you know, American big-budget cinema dominates the screens of the world, so it would be ridiculous for me to feel superior.
"As it is, the film I've made will reach fewer people, with more risks, more vulnerability to attack--and I'm exposing myself, making my screen debut at a time when most women think their careers are over and they're weeping for the loss of their youth."
Clearly Sally Potter is no average film director. It has long been thus; her upbringing in a left-wing, bohemian London family set her apart. Her grandmothers both acted, her mother sang, while her father was a poet, an anarchist and a furniture designer.
"There was always music in the house, and I grew up poor," she remembers. "I was given the gift of independence, and an assumption that music and poetry were where you found meaning.
"I also learned financial security was a myth, which has helped. As a director you have to accept you must constantly wing it--and that poverty is no disaster."
These lessons served her well. She left school at 15 to direct films, but was invariably considered too young. She trained as a dancer, formed the Limited Dance Company and made several short dance films.
She stayed within the avant-garde for years, making uncommercial films--"non-narrative epics," she wryly calls them--including the feature-length "The Gold Diggers" in 1983, starring Julie Christie.
"But I hit a stone wall in my 30s," she admits. "The day after I finished 'The Gold Diggers,' I wrote a treatment for 'Orlando.' I was ready. But it took 10 years to get together."
Indeed it did. Her producer, Christopher Sheppard, had more than 400 rejections from would-be "Orlando" financiers and amassed thousands of air miles in order to secure funds from France, Holland, Russia and Italy--plus a small sum from Britain.
"The Tango Lesson" was an easier fund-raising exercise. The same backers who made handsome profits on "Orlando" (along with co-producers in Argentina and Japan) put up the modest budget--around $4 million. Yet Potter remains outside the mainstream British film industry--most London-based backers simply rejected "The Tango Lesson."
"Too risky," she says tersely. "Think of it on paper: It's in black and white, there are no stars, Sally's in it, it's about the tango. There was a certain amount of disbelief."
Yet the qualities admired in Potter's films by her devoted fans are not to be found on bits of paper. On the face of it, "Orlando" and "The Tango Lesson" seem to have little in common--yet both deal with self-determination and empowerment, especially for women. And of course Potter's own career as much as her work underscores those themes.
"It's all about the 'I can' and 'I will,' " she agrees. "Most of us grow up with the feeling life is pre-written. There's such massively heavy discouragement everywhere, especially women. I never set out to encourage or empower, but I'm increasingly aware of my responsibility.
"A film can revitalize people by mirroring back to them their own complexity, hopes, intelligence and power. I can't tell you how many people have wept on my shoulder, having seen 'The Tango Lesson.' You enter into people's heads."
What does she do next? "There is a script I'm working on. I want to make more films. I haven't done enough of them. I don't want any more four-year gaps like this last one."
And is she still doing the tango? "Oh, yes. Only last week I was in Buenos Aires with Pablo, dancing all night until 8:30 a.m. But how I'll integrate the tango with the rest of my life, I don't know."