What do you do when you’re suffering from a serious case of writer’s block? How do you recover when you’ve finally broken through into critical adoration then have no idea how to make your much-anticipated follow-up? If you’re Sally Potter, you take up a new hobby. Following the success of her Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando, Potter went to work writing her next film, a murder mystery set in the world of high fashion. Unable to break through her block, she abandoned the page to learn how to tango dance, instructed by the legendary Pablo Veron. She then turned that experience into a movie. The Tango Lesson is a film where a film director named Sally, played by Potter herself, can’t seem to write a film about a murder in the fashion world, so she goes off to learn how to tango with Pablo Veron. To call it semi-autobiographical would be to sell it short.
It’s practically a rite of passage for directors who have built up a reputation to follow in the steps of Fellini and make their own 8 ½, their lavish inspired-by-true-events film about their own life and the ever-so-dramatic experience of being a tortured artist. Film, and art as a whole, is dominated by narratives of male creators and their process, from Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz to Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory. It’s less common, however, to see women take the same route. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir duology is a welcome exception to the rule, but The Tango Lesson stood alone, oft-ignored or cruelly dismissed, for many years.
Potter was dinged for her supposed narcissism by some critics, a claim that feels unnecessarily pointed given her male predecessors and their self-focus. Some said that the movie seemed to exist solely for Potter to show off her dance skills, which are admittedly stunning. What such sneering ignores is how Potter’s unabashedly feminine view of the artist’s story reveals the tensions between the genders. By extension, it also subverts the expectations we have of such narratives when told by men. There’s no familial drama, no addiction subplot, and no nagging ex-spouse. Instead, it’s a story about a romantic filmmaker exploring the intersections of love and art, and how beautiful that can be. It’s a simple idea amid a very meta story, but one that resonates.
Through her blossoming relationship with Veron – not a natural actor but a figure of sheer presence in a way that is easy to be taken by – we see Potter find not only a personal kind of satisfaction but a creative one. The tango offers a true form of balance that she can’t seem to find in film. Even as a singular cinematic force, Potter has to submit her ideas to Hollywood studio heads, portrayed as parodic figures of buzzwords and cultural blindness, none of whom seem to care about the art itself. To dance is to be an equal partner in a duel of ideas and emotions. It’s to desire and be desired, to expose one’s deepest intimacies for an eager audience. In that aspect, it’s not unlike film, where Potter has often mined her own experiences for narrative exploration.
The Tango Lesson is sharply aware that the boundaries between art, work, and love are blurred at best. The semi-fictional Sally asks Pablo to teach her to dance with the vague promise that she will cast him in one of her films, an offer he is eager to fulfil. The more Sally dances, the more it evolves from a welcome distraction to an obsession, then, through the act of being a movie, work. To put it bluntly, her hobby becomes a new side-hustle, bringing with it all of the roadblocks she encountered trying to write her script. Her romantic story is as much a part of her professional image, and soon she’s forced to navigate the tightrope walk of integrating these various elements of her life: writer, director, performer, dancer, lover.
Knowing that this struggle happened off-screen as well as on- adds a deeper layer of artistic entanglement, as does the central performance by Potter. She’s exposing her own journey and revealing the creative results, which feels startlingly raw in a way even the most candid of these films shy away from. Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle lamented that Potter “often looks worn out”, which is partly the point: it’s tough doing all the things she does, and it’s supposed to be. Yet there is deftness here, especially in how Potter eschews dialogue in favor of movement. Why monologue about your feelings when you can tango with three men at the same time? Even Bob Fosse hired someone else to play him in All That Jazz.
The film does not conclude with the end of Potter and Veron’s relationship. Rather, it is given an optimistic focus, with Potter singing a song to him (one that she co-wrote, adding another string to her bow of auteur talents.) It’s remarkably optimistic for this sub-genre and an open-ended way to finish the story. If this romance ends – and we know that it did – then there will be others, and new stories to tell with those who inspire. Therein is the real love story, and a film that acts as the greatest love letter Potter could have hoped to make for Veron, for her audience, and for herself.
“The Tango Lesson” is available for digital rental and purchase.