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Finding the Loves of Her Life in 'Tango Lesson'

Movies: Director Sally Potter combines her passion for filmmaking, dance and romance in this story of shared knowledge.

December 29, 1997|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — 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."

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