"You should do nothing when you dance," Pablo Veron tells his co-star, director and perhaps real-life lover, Sally Potter, toward the end of her wonderful new film, The Tango Lesson. "Just follow--follow! Otherwise, you block my freedom to move. You destroy my liberty. And then I cannot dance. I cannot dance. I can do nothing." Young, virile and casually narcissistic, Veron is a master of the tango, that beautifully choreographed battle of the sexes in which, if everything goes right, both sides win. As for Potter, she's a middle-aged (though fit-as-a-fiddle) British filmmaker--a little prim, a little proper, a little stiff, but quite sure of herself. Like Fellini's 8Þ, The Tango Lesson is a movie about a director who's having trouble coming up with her next movie. We see flashes of the script that Potter's working on--a pretentious murder mystery set in the world of high fashion, called Rage. Then, one night, she catches a Veron exhibition in Paris and becomes infatuated--not so much with the dancer as with the dance. Meeting Veron afterwards, Potter asks him to give her lessons. He says yes, and thus begins the turning and gliding and pausing and kicking and swirling of their multifaceted relationship. The movie, too, is multifaceted--a love story, a dance film and a feminist critique of the role that power plays in art and life. Describing the plot to The New York Times, Potter said, "Rather than boy meets girl and they fall in love, it's director meets dancer and they fall in work." A pithy remark, but I think it diminishes what she's accomplished. Like the old Astaire-Rogers movies, The Tango Lesson captures both the romance of dance and the dance of romance, and it does so by asking a question that may never have occurred to Astaire and Rogers: Who will lead, and who will follow? They used to say about Ginger Rogers that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. But Potter, who directed the severely androgynous Orlando, finds it difficult to assume the so-called woman's role. She's too used to being in control. And so, in the movie's romance, she leads as often as she follows. And in the dancing? Potter wants to lead there, too, but Veron won't let her. He's too proud, too vain. Then again, vanity may be the whole reason he's dancing around her in the first place. If she puts him in a movie--say, the one we're watching--he could become a star. For whatever reasons, the two of them dance a kind of meta-tango in which first one and then the other is made to walk backwards, in high heels.
Shot in scrumptious black-and-white, The Tango Lesson moves between Paris and Buenos Aires as if the two cities were two sides of the same dance floor. As she showed in Orlando, Potter's a masterful image-maker, but in Orlando the images were a little static--tableaux vivants. Here, she sets them in motion. The hugely enjoyable dance sequences reveal a stunning sense of both mise-en-scène and--in the movie's most romantic moment--mise-en-Seine. Some might argue with Potter's having cast herself as herself; she's not a very expressive actress. And yet, as impassive as she seems, she radiates the kind of intelligence and power that might well have a young Latin stud trading steps with her. In a movie utterly devoted to fancy footwork, she's the one calling all the tunes.