At once beautiful to look at (it was shot by Vittorio Storaro, which assures that), intense in its intellectual density and, unfortunately, a bit glacial in its pacing, Carlos Saura’s Tango (1998) is a film where the viewer’s enjoyment of it all most likely depends on his or her fondness for tango. While I have nothing against tango, I have to say that I don’t find it as endlessly fascinating as Saura obviously does. That’s not to say that I don’t find the film itself fascinating. I do. But while watching it, my mind started to wander during the tango sequences—well, most of them, at any rate.
The film is something of a puzzler. The story of a filmmaker (Miguel Angel Solá) working on a movie that somehow crisscrosses his own life is interesting enough. That the film being made is largely incomprehensible—unless the film we’re watching is the film being made—is more intriguing than troublesome, but it also serves to point out the sub-8 1/2 nature of Tango. Saura aims for the Fellini masterpiece, but lacks both Fellini’s playfulness and easy fusion of fantasy and reality, and so he ends up with something more in the nature of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979).
Cineastes will not only find the specters of Fellini and Fosse here, but also intimations of Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971). The lesbian tango sequence has much in common with the relationship depicted between Georgina Hale and Antonia Ellis in the Russell picture, while the homoerotic tango is edited much like the “I Could Be Happy with You” number between Twiggy and Christopher Gable in the same picture. At the same time, it seems unlikely that Baz Luhrmann hadn’t seen Tango and been influenced by it when creating his “Roxanne” tango sequence in Moulin Rouge! (2001). And the genuinely striking (if overlong) military-repression tango could easily have had an impact on the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” number in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007). That no individual sequence in Tango attains the blow-you-away power of either Moulin Rouge! or Across the Universe is another matter. Whatever its failings, though, this is a film worth seeing.