Though the parallels between them are shaky, Tango unavoidably calls to mind Sally Potter's paean to this genre of choreographed foreplay, the charming, narcissistic curiosity The Tango Lesson. In Potter's film, dance is an embodiment albeit an awkward one of clashing artistic wills, power relations between the sexes, and idealized love and the disillusionment that follows it. She divides her story into "lessons," some about dance, and others about the messy reality for which dance can be explication, sublimation, or escape. Carlos Saura's movie, filmed just outside Buenos Aires, attempts a similar employment of tango as all-purpose metaphor, and even boasts another charming narcissist at its center. Mario Suarez (Miguel Angel Sola) is filming a tango musical (one that appears to be modeled after West Side Story), but autobiography keeps seeping into his frame, mostly in the form of the wife who left him and the dewy-eyed gangster's moll with whom he's now entangled. Ever-prudent Mario, true to form, has cast them as his two female leads. The auteur eventually abruptly decides to inject some historical allegory into his film, with overt allusions to the suffering of Argentines under years of military dictatorship. His newfound political impulses bring on a softer, more reflective Mario; he's no longer merely a cad, but a wistful Zen cad.
While The Tango Lesson drew a permeable boundary between life and dance, Saura's film sets up a two-way mirror. He'll give his audience a by-the-numbers scene of seduction or betrayal in one moment, then in the next recast it as a tango number, providing a welcome distraction from the hackneyed script. Lighting the performers in silhouette against a back screen may seem a hokey device, but Saura's austere approach maintains the hard-edged purity of a dance that is at once rigidly precise and impulsively erotic. These scenes are thrilling, but ultimately redundant; one wishes that Saura had followed his protagonist's lead and made the far more efficient, eloquent film that lurks in Tango, one in which dance does all the talking.
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