Safety Dance

The Tango Lesson
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

AT A CERTAIN point, postmodernism runs the risk of collapsing into itself. A work of art that's chiefly about being a work of art--or about other works of art--often leaves one feeling hungry and perhaps a little cheated. I'm thinking of the school in which an apple is placed on a pedestal in a gallery with a price tag of $2,000. Ha ha, it says: Get the joke? To which I say, Keep your apple. Put in a little time at the easel or the lump of clay; create something to titillate my eye and my heart as well as my brain. Gimme the juice.

Of course, lots of postmodern art isn't that lazy, and there's much to be said for the self-conscious gesture. But the challenge for anyone who wants to make art about art is to make sure there's a heart beating somewhere beneath the winks and nods (unlike Woody Allen's utterly solipsistic Deconstructing Harry, for example). The artist might also want to ensure that, after all the cutting-and-pasting is done, what emerges is more than the sum of its parts.

The Tango Lesson tries hard on both of those counts. In fact, as the most interesting cinematic failure in ages, one would expect writer/director Sally Potter to say of it: I learned so much. First off, it's a beautiful film to look at, thanks in large part to a supporting team of arthouse all-stars: cinematographer Robby Muller (Dead Man, Breaking the Waves), editor Herve Schneid (Delicatessen), and production designer Carlos Conti (Diva, Betty Blue). It's a strenuously European film, shot mostly in black and white and set in London, Paris, and Buenos Aires, with dialogue that straddles three languages--that is, when the actors are talking at all. Mostly they just watch each other, which is to say that the film takes a long time to gather momentum.

Apparently, it pretty much tells the story of its own creation: Potter, a vibrant, middle-aged film director, is working on a screenplay when she begins taking tango lessons from a studly young Argentinian named Pablo Veron (who, like Potter, stars as himself). They become dance partners, and we sense that he's using her to get a part in her movie. (We're also led to believe that these two are or were lovers in real life.) Potter abandons her screenplay and starts work on a script about the tango. Things get messy, and the dynamic tension between these two headstrong artists is meant to fuel the movie: In dance, Veron must dominate Potter; in film, it's the other way round.

This continues a line of questioning Potter began with her adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando: Can a person (traditionally a man) stake a claim to another person's beauty (traditionally a woman's) simply because he recognizes it? Does an artist own the image of another person simply because he uses it? In Orlando's final moment of triumph, a young girl of about 6 years old frolics in a field with a camcorder, recording what she sees and giggling. She is the reward for centuries of struggle against men's dominating visions of women. Apparently, the goal is simply for women to say "I"--or, more accurately, "I see." And so the ending is really only the beginning of the real story, the yet-unarticulated female vision that Woolf fantasized about. It's a lot like Gillian Armstrong's acclaimed My Brilliant Career, in which Judy Davis spends the entire film just learning how to sit down and put pen to paper, and then writes about learning to write. It's an essential step, but, in 1998, I for one am well beyond ready to see what comes next.

The Tango Lesson does get beyond the point of saying "Hey, look at me! I'm a woman director!" but just barely. The difference is the dude. In one poignant scene set in front of a mirror, a sulky Veron asks Potter what she sees when she looks at him. "I see you on the screen," she says. "Then you're not here with me," he replies. "You have become a camera." "But that's how I love you--with my eyes, with work," says Potter, sounding as stereotypically male as can be.

This kind of role reversal is amusing, much like Orlando's little girl, or a sequence in The Tango Lesson in which the auteur dances with three Argentinian studs all at once. The problem is that these scenes feel like black-and-white negative images: initially intriguing but ultimately two-dimensional. And a film that's just about making a film about making a film--well, like I said, at a certain point the whole thing implodes.

To make matters worse, The Tango Lesson is the big-screen acting debut for both Potter and Veron, and they're terribly guarded in front of the camera--Potter especially. We're never allowed inside their psyches or into the ostensibly electrified space between them. This icy film has only one moment of unguarded emotion: when the two hop out of a taxi and dance together in the rain, laughing at themselves and finishing with an enormous hug. For me, that should have been Potter's goal for this film, and for Orlando as well. Not just to see, but to expose. Not just to be seen, but to be revealed.

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