THE CRITICS: CINEMA:

A dance to the music of sex: Tango Director: Carlos Saura Starring: Miguel Angel Sol, Cecilia Narova (117 mins; 12)
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In the modern cinema the regular re-emergence of neglected genres tends to be less of a cyclical than a spiral process. Even if most such genres - the western, the screwball comedy, the film noir, etc - eventually return to the mainstream, it's always to a slightly different place from the one they once occupied. The musical, for instance. The tradition may be exhausted, yet musical films of one sort or another do keep coming, year after year, as though to prove that you can' t keep a good genre down.

By far the feeblest type of revival, particularly given how dire the source material usually is nowadays, is the slavish adaptation of some hit stage show. To take an obvious example, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita was already tripe and Alan Parker' s film version was simply tripe squared. Barely more successful have been the (fortunately rare) attempts to resuscitate, intact, the classic Hollywood musical comedy of the 1930s and 1940s. Peter Bogdanovich tried it several years ago, embarrassingly, in At Long Last Love. More recently, Woody Allen' s Everyone Says I Love You was, for anyone who has ever sat entranced through an Astaire and Rogers movie, a wretchedly amateurish facsimile, with dancers as clunky as their models were - to employ a word now as obsolete as the quality it defines - debonair. As any fule (or cinefule) no, the cinema's past can't just be revisited, it has to be reinvented.

Carlos Saura's Tango, the latest of his musical spectacles, at least adopts a more intelligently oblique approach to the challenge. It's a homage to what is surely still the most erotic, the most unashamedly horny, of popular dance forms, and it has the good sense to encumber itself, for much of its running time, with no more than a decent minimum of plotty connective tissue.

I'm certainly no expert, but as a tangophile of old, let me say at once that I thought the dancers themselves were absolutely and uniformly superb. Clad in the swishest garments in the world, the tights and sweaters and vests and leg-warmers of backstage rehearsal togs, Saura's lithe and beautiful cast slink in and out of each other's sometimes electrically taut, sometimes sexily giving, bodies. Suddenly, head raised high, one of the women will stamp her feet in a ferocious tango tantrum while her male partner, haughtily raising a jet-black boot, casts a furtive glance at its heel as though fearing he might have trod on something unmentionable. Whereupon, in an impeccably timed and thrillingly symmetrical glissando, the two bodies magnetically click on to one another, every joint and hinge and pivot miraculously finding its mate. The couple are instantly transformed into a unit, a multi-limbed beast with two backs, and the number ends with a spectacular four-legged splits.

Frankly, I could have watched them for ever (which, as it happens, was no bad thing, as the film lasts a seriously overextended 117 minutes), but Saura, alas, had other and weightier matters on his mind. For Tango turns out to be what's called a self-reflexive work. Its narrative, when it finally admits to having one, focuses on a film-maker, the lugubrious Mario (Miguel Angel Sol), who seems to be preparing a movie not a thousand miles away from the very one we're watching, a musical in which the dances are intended to offer a stylised mirror image - now why has no one thought of this before?- of the marital and emotional crises which are meanwhile playing havoc with his private life.

That's easy enough to follow, even a bit simplistic, but the plot-line gradually articulates yet another level of ambiguity which I confess - and I flatter myself I'm no slouch in the self-reflexivity stakes - left me fairly discombobulated. After a half-hour or so (it's hard to tell at a single viewing exactly when it happens) we begin to understand that it's not a film at all that he's directing but a stage show; and this dovetailing conflation of the two mediums leads to a climactic production number in which cinema is played off against theatre, illusion against reality, and a feigned death against, as it were, a real live death. That, anyway, is what I think is going on.

In any event, as we watch the film wind down, we're clearly supposed to be muttering to ourselves, "Gosh! Isn't this inexorable!" I'm afraid, though, that it felt to me all too exorable, just the sort of naive, pseudo- Pirandellian conceit that should have been put out to grass long ago. The worst of it is that it gets in the way of the dancing - the real point, after all, of the exercise.

It's a pity, too, that a little more air was not allowed to circulate in the film, whose entire action unfolds on a vast but also somehow claustrophobic studio set. In promotional interviews Saura has spoken of his "great interest in the music of Argentina", of the tangos "sung in the streets and courtyards" of his adolescence. Yet what's missing from Tango is precisely the smoky ambience and languorous melancholy of the working-class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires in which the dance was born.

But enough of carping - let's end by accentuating the positive. There are, in Tango, moments - in fact, not only moments but brilliantly choreographed sequences - calculated to induce the kind of breathtaking euphoria that one assumed was one of the cinema's innumerable lost secrets and arts. For these moments Saura's magnificent dancers are responsible, and I'd like to use the remaining handful of words at my disposal simply to name a few of them. So: Cecilia Narova, Mia Maestro, Julio Bocca, Juan Carlos Copes and Juan Luis Gagliardo. Bravo!

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