The central character is a director named Mario Suarez, well if morosely played by Miguel Engel Solà, who is preparing to shoot a film about the dance form in a cavernous Buenos Aires sound stage. At the beginning, he's in misery over the loss of a woman, so he throws himself into his work, actually taking up residence in the studio. One of his investors, a lordly gangster (Juan Luis Galiardo), asks Mario to grant an audition to Elena (Mia Maestro), a young dancer he's in love with. She turns out to be both beautiful and a fine dancer, lands the star part and--well, you can see where the plot is heading.
It may occur to you that there's nothing about this story that needs to be taken all that seriously. There's no reason that it couldn't have unfolded at Warner Bros. back in the '30s, with, say, Warner Baxter as Mario, Bebe Daniels as the woman who left him, Ruby Keeler as the sweet new kid, and maybe George Bancroft as the jealous gangster. Saura himself would probably be the first to tell you that plot is not his film's raison d'étre, anyway. It's just a frame on which to string a series of tango sequences, elaborately choreographed by Juan Carlos Copes (who also plays Mario's choreographer), Ana Maria Steckelman and Carlos Rivarola.
But in that apocryphal '30s Warner musical, the numbers would have been shaped with the object of giving the audience a good time. They would have had buoyancy, sensuality and humor. The dance numbers in Tango are executed to perfection, both by the performers and the filmmakers, but they're sterile. Many of them seem to be conceived to demonstrate that tango is the most formalized genre of pornography in the world--Saura stages a tango menage à trois, and both gay and lesbian numbers--yet there's no erotic force to them. Early on, in a restaurant, we see an older tango master (Copes) and a young woman dance a fine, romantic duet, apropos of nothing in the story. It's shot simply, without all the fussy framing and lighting, and it has a lightness and magic that is missing from most of the other numbers in the film.
Saura would probably answer the request that he lighten up with a reproach that cheery old Hollywood dance musicals didn't have Argentina's political horror--Perón, the junta and so forth--as their underpinning. Indeed, Saura puts this scold overtly into the film, when his alter ego Mario stages a grim dance number depicting soldiers in the street, mass graves and torture. After watching it, the investors tell Mario that there's no place for such a depressing digression in a musical, and he chides them for trying to erase the ugly past. The whole thing comes across like a pre-emptive strike against critics who will likely raise the same objection to Saura.
But while a political conscience might be used to defend a darkness of tone, it doesn't justify a tone of emotional aridity. Nothing can justify sucking the sexy joy out of tango. After all, if tango has any political significance at all--and there's nothing that says it has to; did anyone make a movie called Polka about the rise of Solidarity?--it's as an expression of freedom and spirit over repression.
Besides, Saura's political pose seems halfhearted. Nor does he even seem all that interested in making us understand tango, or where it fits into Argentine culture. He's most concerned with showing us himself, in the form of Mario, watching tango. From the very beginning, Saura seems intent on preventing us from engaging directly with the material--he only wants us to do it through him. The first shot of the film is a pan across the skyline of Buenos Aires. Then we're inside Mario's apartment, where he's working on the script of his film, which opens with exactly the same shot.
A few scenes later, we're inside the sound stage looking out through an open door, but our view is soon obscured as workmen carry scrims between the door and us. After that, there are virtually no exteriors for the rest of Tango--Saura and Storaro keep us cooped up in their tidy, elegant studio. In the first big duet, we can plainly see the cameras peering over the shoulders of the dancers. Mirrors abound throughout the film, and dialogue from one lover's quarrel recurs, almost verbatim, in a later quarrel between two different characters. These and other touches are probably supposed to get across the artifice, the dualism and the controlled sexual bellicosity that is the nature of tango--there is, alas, no suggestion that there might be some irony inherent in the form--but they more strongly emphasize the self-conciousness of the director.
Saura has taken this approach of near-Brechtian distancing before, in 1978's Dulces Horas, for instance, where the hero was a playwright looking at his own past by watching the rehearsals of one of his plays, or in 1971's The Garden of Delights, in which a crippled rich man's relatives, with the aid of a hired actress, act out a nasty version of This Is Your Life for him. But in these films, the device of watching a performance gave cool distance to memory, while in Tango the act of watching by the hero--and, by implication, the director--keeps us distant from the performances themselves.
At one point, Mario--who doesn't dance; who, indeed, walks with a cane--says to his new squeeze that "imagination is a guardrail which keeps you from plunging into the pit of horror." That seems to be how Saura sees it--he puts plenty of protective fencing between himself and the messiness of life. For some artists, however, imagination is the impulse that drives them to crash through guardrails, and to plunge into the depths, and also scale the heights, beyond them.
Directed by Carlos Saura.