The Tango Lesson

UK/France/Argentina/Japan/Germany, 1997, 101 mins
Director: Sally Potter

The director and star of The Tango Lesson, Sally Potter, has described her film as one which ‘exists, perilously, on the knife edge between reality and fiction’. Potter’s previous feature Orlando (based on a Virginia Woolf novel which was part fictionalised biography, part historical time-travel and part love letter) also balanced on this knife edge, but the fact that it was a literary adaptation made the combination safer. By contrast, The Tango Lesson, based on real experiences from Potter’s life, is a significant personal risk, one intensified by Potter’s decision to play herself on screen.

Shot mostly in exquisite black and white by veteran cinematographer Robby Müller, it dramatises and documents Potter’s fascination with the Argentinian tango. The film shows her single minded desire to learn the dance and her fluctuating emotional relationship with her teacher/partner Pablo Veron (a real-life tango star, also playing himself) who comes across as macho, predictably over-accustomed to adulation, and prone to giving ego-bruising criticism of the older, female Potter. Given Potter’s near-constant presence on screen in an allegedly autobiographical film, The Tango Lesson will inevitably be rejected by some viewers and critics as self-indulgent. But for a filmmaker like Potter who has never marketed herself as a media or screen personality, the experience must have been closer to self-exposure. Miraculously, she transforms this highly personal material and uses her ambiguous screen presence (is it Potter we are watching, or a construction named ‘Sally Potter’?) well to make a film which is mostly intriguing and affecting. This has the same light touch, the same playfulness about gender relations and the magical aura which made Orlando a pleasure. The film’s weaknesses (of which the chummy casting of poet Heathcote Williams as an unlikely builder is one) are generally minor, although the ‘happy ending’, in which Potter serenades Pablo by the Buenos Aires docks, is not just cheesy but unsatisfying.

To criticise The Tango Lesson in such terms, though, misses the point. Its real richness lies in the multi-layered themes which Potter’s immersion in the dance allows her to explore. She has written that the film is about: ‘the attraction of opposites: between Anglo-Saxon and Latin-American cultures; between male and female; between the watcher and watched and about power’. Obviously, The Tango Lesson is also about the imbalance of power between man and woman – a theme for which the tango itself stands as a potent metaphor.
To be a satisfactory tango partner, a woman must learn to ‘do nothing’, to follow. When Sally, used to taking charge as a film director, fails to achieve this passivity, Pablo rages that she has ‘destroyed his freedom to move.’ But, more interestingly, The Tango Lesson is also an exploration of the relationships between pleasure and work, life and art. Rather than dramatising the distance between rehearsal and performance, inspiration and artefact, The Tango Lesson constantly continuity-edits them together. Crucially, Pablo’s insistence that personal and professional relationships should be kept distinct results in the disintegration of his relationship with Sally.

Thus our uncertainty about whether Potter’s presence on screen is personal or professional, and the related ‘problem’ the film seems to pose – why, some might ask, has Potter pursued this personal project rather than a more mainstream movie? – are exactly the subjects The Tango Lesson seeks to explore. Potter’s dramatisation in the film of her dissatisfaction with Rage, the film project she abandoned in real life, and with her abortive encounter with Hollywood executives, provocatively suggests that her powerlessness as a woman and tango amateur are not so different from her position in an industry in which films and directors are fundamentally commodities, With ironic aptness, The Tango Lesson’s only colour sequences (highly reminiscent of Orlando’s lavish spectacle) are imagined glimpses from this parallel film which wasn’t made. For those who wonder why Potter has followed Orlando with a film which seems to retreat from the mainstream – while recalling the more stringent political critiques of her earlier work – The Tango Lesson offers its own answer.

Claire Monk, Sight and Sound, December 1997

Orlando received Oscar nominations and many awards worldwide, and Sally Potter became a hot property. The film’s visual panache, the minimalist exuberance of a screenplay that neatly compressed an unwieldy novel, and its witty and highly cinematic solutions to the novel’s challenges elicited seductive offers of music videos and studio deals. Sally, the protagonist of Potter’s next film The Tango Lesson (1997), finds herself in the same position: courted by Hollywood, she starts work on a murder-mystery screenplay set in the glamorous world of fashion. Little glimpses of this potential film appear in vivid Technicolor, contrasting Sally’s inner eye with the velvety black and white of her daily reality of cleaning, location recces and dealing with cowboy builders.

Yet Sally’s Eyes of Laura Mars-style project gets sidelined, first by her growing interest in tango – and in tanguero Pablo Veron – and then by pressure from its producers to corral her film into Hollywood conformity. The tango lesson, it turns out, springs not from success but from failure: after fighting with the producers and with Pablo, Sally decides to make a film where she is, in Buenos Aires, with what she has to hand. In a wonderful sequence (pastiched since on every dance reality show), Sally, Pablo and two other tangueros join in a fluid four-person dance, charted by a single long take through an empty, light-filled warehouse. It’s a scene whose joyous use of music and movement combines with a deep sense of film history.

Potter’s audacity is reflected in the decision to cast herself as Sally. Her bravura performance, especially in the tango sequences, parallels the complex narrative interplay, via which the film Sally wants to make gradually meshes with the film we’re watching. Her acting and dancing abilities allow Potter to be the most self-sufficient of auteurs – she has also choreographed, sung and even composed for her films.

Sophie Mayer, Sight & Sound, January 2010

The Tango Lesson Director: Sally Potter
Production Companies: Adventure Pictures, OKCK Films, PIE, Nippon Film Development & Finance, Imagica, Pandora Filmproduktion, Sigma Films
Participation: Arts Council of England, European Co-Production Fund, Eurimages Conseil de l’europe, Medien- und Filmgesellschaft Baden-Württemberg, NPS Televisie, Stichting Co-productiefonds Binnenlandse Omroep
Supported by: National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
Producer: Christopher Sheppard
Buenos Aires Line Producer: Oscar Kramer
France Co-producer: Simona Benzakein
Argentina Co-producer: Oscar Kramer, Christian Keller Sarmiento
Associate Producers: Diane Gelon, Cat Villiers
Production Co-ordinator: Roanne Moore
Buenos Aires Production Co-ordinator: Barbara Factorovich
Paris Production Co-ordinators: Marie-Laure Compain, Florence Forney
Paris Production Manager: Philippe Besnier
Buenos Aires Production Manager: Diana Frey
Paris Location Managers: Eric Vidart-Loeb, Denise Cassotti
Buenos Aires Location Manager: Alberto Hasse
1st Assistant Director: Waldo Roeg
Paris 1st Assistant Director: Jérome Borenstein
Paris 3rd Assistant Director: Oona Seiler
Buenos Aires 1st Assistant Director: Carlos Gil
Buenos Aires 2nd Assistant Director: Rodrigo Carvajal
Buenos Aires 3rd Assistant Director: Nicolas Cubria
London 2nd Assistant Director: Mel Nortcliffe
Script Supervisor: Penny Eyles
Casting Director: Irene Lamb
Paris Casting Director: Frédérique Moidon
Paris Models Casting Director: Prudence Harington
Story Editor: Walter Donohue
Screenplay: Sally Potter
Director of Photography: Robby Müller
Paris Steadicam Operator: Jörg Widmer
Buenos Aires Steadicam Operator: Gustavo Mosquera
Paris Special Effects Supervisor: Christian Talenton
Buenos Aire Special Effects Supervisor: Tom Cundom
Editor: Hervé Schneid
Production Designer: Carlos Conti
Buenos Aires Art Director: Graciela Oderigo
Buenos Aires Sculptor: Adriana Maestri
Costume Designer: Paul Minter
Wardrobe Supervisor: Michael Weldon
Make-up Artists: Thi-Loan Nguyen, Chantal Léothier
Wigs: Peter King
Paris Hairdresser: Christian Gruau
Buenos Aires Hairdresser: Ricardo Fassan
Titles: Ranch Associates, Steve Masters
Optical Effects: Peerless Camera Company
Music: Sally Potter
With the participation of: Fred Frith
Ondes Martenot Music Performed by: Thomas Bloch
Guitars, Violins Music Performed by: Cristal Bachet, Fred Frith
Vocals Music Performed by: Sally Potter
Music Supervisors: Ivan Chandler, Musicalities
[Music] Recording Engineer: Franck Lebon
Choreography: Pablo Veron
Buenos Aires Additional Choreography: Gustavo Naveira, Fabian Salas, Carlos Copello
Sound: Jean-Paul Mugel, Gérard Hardy
Re-recording Mixer: Robin O’Donoghue
ADR Mixer: Gilles Missir
ADR Editors: Patrice Raffi, Corinne Raffi
Foley Artist: Jean-Pierre Lelong
Foley Mixer: Jacques Thomas-Gérard
Paris Stunt Supervisor: Patrick Cauderlier
Paris Stunt Woman: Pascaline Girardot
Script Translation: Elie Robert-Nicoud

Sally Potter (Sally)
Pablo Veron (Pablo)
Gustavo Naveira (Gustavo)
Fabian Salas (Fabian)
David Toole (fashion designer)
Carolina Iotti (Pablo’s partner)
Carlos Copello (Carlos)
Peter Eyre (English tango fan)
Heathcote Williams (builder)
Morgane Maugran (red model)
Geraldine Maillet (yellow model)
Katerina Mechera (blue model)
George Yiasoumi (photographer)
Michele Parent, Claudine Mavros, Monique Couturier (seamstresses)
Matthew Hawkins, Simon Worgan (bodyguards)
Zobeida, Orazio Massaro, Anne Fassio, Guillaume Gallienne, Michel Andre, Flaminio Corcos (Pablo’s friends)
Howard Lee (man at tea dance)
Juan José Czalkin (waiter)
Horacio Marassi (shoe man)
David Derman, Oscar Dante Lorenzo, Omar Vega (salon dancers)
Olga Besio (Olga)
Cantilo Pena (hotel porter)
Maria Noel, Fabian Stratas, Gregory Dayton (movie executives)
Emmanuelle Tertipis (woman in dressing room)
Ruben Orlando Di Napoli (Master of Ceremonies)
Tito Haas (taxi driver)
Alicia Monti (Carlos’ partner)
Maria Fernanda Lorences (woman opening door)
Luis Sturla, Amanda Beitía (couple opening door)
Marcos Woinski (man opening door)
Eduardo Rojo (janitor)
Oscar Arribas (man at synagogue)

UK/France/Argentina/Japan/ Germany 1997© 101 mins

BECOME A BFI MEMBER Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Email