Film Review: Our Last Tango

A lush and sexy portrait of a celebrated dance career.
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They were lovers, dance partners and two of the artists who did the most to take tango from the streets of Buenos Aires to Broadway and beyond. But María Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes endured as much backstage drama as any friction-fueled rock band, dancing together for years after they were divorced and hardly speaking to each other. Listening to their story mostly from the side of the spurned wife and fleshing out her memories with transporting reenactments, German Kral's Our Last Tango balances between a studious fascination with the dance form's history and an embrace of the passions it stokes. Far more engrossing than the usual doc of this sort, it should generate strong word of mouth.

Both dancers (now in their 80s) are interviewed for the film, which makes a dramatic point of bringing them together one last time on stage. But Nieves does most of the talking, offering a loved-and-abandoned perspective more suitable for tango's melodrama than that of Copes, who remained a performing star for decades after leaving her for younger dance partners and a new wife.

As Nieves recalls her impoverished childhood and early fascination with dance, Kral offers artfully designed flashbacks on a soundstage; soon, we're watching as the young dancers cast as Nieves and Copes interview her directly and discuss their career, and how to recreate it, among themselves.

Those beautiful young dancers bring serious glamour to stories of the milongas where the couple met and the grand Atlanta dance hall (now a skating rink) where they became a sensation. The interplay between the subjects and the dancers portraying them continues, but grows less romantic, as we hear of the next phase of their career: As other musical forms threatened tango's popularity, Copes and others (like composer Astor Piazzolla, not discussed here) started to envision it as Argentina's answer to American jazz, an art form that could be exported worldwide.

The move from dance halls to worldwide theatrical stages invited showy inventions, like the "double gaucho," which required Nieves, always terrified, to dance atop a small table. Around this point, rather than chronicle the ins and outs of tour life and infidelities, the film boils years' worth of drama into an affecting dance set-piece of love, lust and loss.

Viewers may well find their curiosity stoked by Our Last Tango, which leaves huge gaps in its narrative in order to make its appeal to our senses. But like its title and its framing device, in which the elderly stars make themselves beautiful, strut out to meet on an empty stage and then part without having danced, the film knows that much of tango's hold over spectators lies in what is withheld.

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