As though torching the film, Orlando, that established her reputation-and even celebrating the deed, by dispersing the prior movie's ashes throughout the new one-British director Sally Potter shifts from a sprightly cynicism to a wry romanticism with The Tango Lesson. Where Orlando was measured and affronting, The Tango Lesson is abandoned to joy. It isn't as though Potter has dropped the tight visual formality and peculiar, elastic sense of time that made Orlando so noticeable. But, perhaps acting on the thought that audiences deserve a bit of whimsy following the tough social critique of her last picture, she's delivered a new film that's inviting and giddy. Even though it's self-conscious of its own sentimentality, it's surprisingly infectious.

The alarming colors of Orlando vitally contributed to that film's sense of make-believe, but the serene black-and-white imagery of Tango signifies from the beginning that something more inward is going on. In fact, Tango stars Potter as Sally, a filmmaker living in Paris struggling with writer's block. She's working on a new script, titled Rage, but it literally isn't going anywhere. Instead, it stays put, at her work table and in her imagination. Scenes of Sally tiring of writing are intercut with color shots of young female models dressed in elaborate gowns, sauntering down elegant flights of steps, and falling beautifully to gunshots in slow motion. A garishly suited fashion designer, who happens to be a midget, rounds out the absurdity of this scene, which Sally obsessively repeats in her mind. The fantasy looks as extravagant and sharp as anything in Orlando, but the idea here about women mistreated as objects is so obvious, its message rings hollow. Her impulse to imagine women, over and over, flailing to the ground is itself death-driven.

Not by design, but by instinct, Sally begins to back off from Rage. For one thing, her apartment is practically encouraging her to put aside her project; she discovers first that the floor, and later that the roof, are deteriorating. She meets a renowned tango dancer, Pablo (real-life dancer Pablo Veron) and, simply for fun at first, takes a lesson from him. But, then, simply for fun, too, she jets off to Buenos Aires-not coincidentally, home of the tango-for a vacation. Sally gradually evolves the notion that this dance is not just a dance; it can also teach her about sociability, men and women, and love. She returns to Paris, and as she immerses herself in the tango, she falls for Pablo. Perhaps reflecting her own state of mind, tango music starts to edge out Orlando-like chants on the soundtrack.

Tango's funnest section has Sally and Pablo frolicking on a night in the town in gay Paree. They dance through a cafe while a waiter stacks chairs on tables, closing up shop; waltz along the bank of the Seine, just before a light snow drifts down on them; and finally hash out their personal philosophies at an all-night spot, while sipping java. The sequence is perfectly movie-ish and, by lifting ideas from musicals that everyone has seen, Potter indicates that she full well knows it is-but, with that caution, she proceeds to indulge the romanticism anyway, perhaps just because it is so spirited and alive. The tango has captured her heart, in much the same way that musicals perennially delight movie audiences.

Potter further tempers her ebullience through director of photography Robby Muller's characteristic, blighting emptiness. The director also portrays Sally having some second thoughts about Pablo. Now that she's opened herself to Pablo's art, Sally proposes making a film about him. Though she's let him lead all the tangoing so far, Pablo refuses to acknowledge Sally's position as director once filming begins. Yet, at its emotional core, Tango's faith in happiness is stronger than its doubt; the bleak atmosphere and the quarrels are barriers for the two to surpass. By film's end, Sally and Pablo are dancing at a riverbank again, not completely sure of their future, but firmly understanding a beginning between them. It's likely that they will renew their ties, just as the tango has renewed Sally's commitment to her art.

--Peter Henné