Tango Libre: Venice Review

Tango Libre
The inflamed passions of the tango ignite this soulful, well-acted drama, even if that same extravagant spirit eventually throws the storytelling off course.

The latest film from Belgian director Frederic Fonteyne ('Une Liaison Pornographique') mirrors the sultry, shifting rhythms of the dance in mapping a complicated web of relationships.

VENICE – In his widely traveled 1999 feature Une Liaison Pornographique, Belgian director Frederic Fonteyne established himself not only as a supremely elegant filmmaker but one with an intimate understanding of the byways of romance and sex. He enhances that reputation with Tango Libre, about a woman loved and desired by three different men. However, this beautifully made film ultimately sacrifices its narrative integrity, swerving in the final act from melancholy sensuality into off-the-rails irrational melodrama.

The original screenplay was written by Anne Paulicevich, who shares credit for adaptation and dialogue with Philippe Blasband. She also stars as Alice, a free-spirited nurse who believes it’s possible to love more than one man without preference. The film’s refusal to judge her on this position is among its more refreshing traits. But the center of the drama and the conduit of its intense gaze is Jean Christophe, or JC (Francois Damiens), an introverted prison guard. Despite a natural aptitude for dancing that’s on par with his social awkwardness, JC’s lonely, alienated existence is relieved only by the interaction of weekly tango lessons.

After being partnered with newcomer Alice one evening in class, he is surprised when she turns up in the visiting room at the prison. Observing silently, JC learns that Alice is married to the hot-tempered Spanish prisoner Fernand (Sergi Lopez) and is also the lover of his more taciturn Flemish cellmate Dominic (Jan Hamenecker). The two men have been incarcerated respectively for 10 and 20 years for their roles in a robbery and murder shown briefly in a slow-mo pre-titles flash. Alice and her 15-year-old son Antonio (Zacharie Chasseriaud) divide their visits equally between the two men, like a family with two fathers.

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When Fernand picks up on JC’s attention toward his wife and learns of their tango encounter, he reacts violently. But more interestingly, he approaches the prison’s tough Argentinean inmates (their ringleader played by renowned Tango Nuevo founder Mariano Chicho Frumboli) to give him tango lessons, underlining the primal importance of the physical in his relationship with Alice.

In the stirring scenes that follow, the Argentines after initially refusing begin a spontaneous demonstration of basic tango steps, at first taunted by the guards and fellow inmates and then accompanied by their percussive handclaps. The dance is shown almost as a battle for primacy. As the display segues to regular lessons that swiftly gain in popularity, the prisoners learn that the tango represents seduction and surrender, pain and anger, frailty, grace and freedom – all of which resonate with men facing long periods behind bars. It might be somewhat obvious but the parallel is effective nonetheless.

To a large extent, Fonteyne succeeds in mirroring the sexy rhythms of the tango in the story. Paulicevich’s Alice is a grounded, defiantly unsentimental core figure, whether dealing with her husband and lover or negotiating the increasingly troubled behavior of Antonio, who has gotten hold of a gun that Dominic stashed. The boy’s confusion about his father figure is compounded by initially unfounded suspicions concerning his mother and JC. And as Fernand is more empowered and liberated by the tango, Dominic becomes the more marginalized outsider, giving way to suicidal depression.

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As the emotional stakes in this tortured family drama are raised and JC irrevocably crosses boundaries in professional protocol, the plotting becomes both less assured and more implausible, skidding toward a fancifully improbable ending. It’s as if the filmmakers let themselves be carried away by the fiery passions of the dance, forgetting about realism and psychological veracity in the process.

Weaknesses aside, there’s still much to admire and enjoy here, not least the sinuous movement of Virginie Saint Martin’s camera, and her cool compositional eye, with the visuals frequently unfolding to vintage tango vocals.

Performances also are strong down the line, notably Paulicevich’s proud, tough-minded Alice and Damiens’ painfully shy, emotionally starved JC. Best of all is the magnetic Lopez. So memorable in Une Liaison Pornographique and as the Fascist villain in Pan’s Labyrinth, Lopez is a burly bear of a man and a powerfully volatile presence, his earring and mutton-chop sideburns here lending him a sexy air of gypsy wildness.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

Production companies: Artemis Productions, Samsa Film, Liaison Cinematographique

Cast: Francois Damiens, Anne Paulicevich, Sergi Lopez, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Jan Hammenecker

Director: Frederic Fonteyne

Screenwriters: Anne Paulicevich, Philippe Blasband

Producers: Patrick Quinet, Claude Waringo

Executive producer: Stephane Quinet

Director of photography: Virginie Saint Martin

Production designer: Veronique Sacrez

Costume designer: Catherine Marchand

Editor: Ewin Ryckaert

Sales: Films Distribution

No rating, 97 minutes