Tango Libre is not your typical dance inspired film. Similar to the Tango itself, the film is a little bit of everything all rolled into one. There is joy, pain, passion, sadness and even a bit of silliness thrown in for good measure. The challenge with having so many different themes at play is finding just the right steps to keep it all in balance.
Jean-Christophe (François Damiens), nicknamed J.C, is a lonely prison guard whose only source of entertainment is the weekly ballroom dance classes he attends. At the class he meets and instantly becomes smitten with Alice (Anne Paulicevich). Although the pair has instant chemistry on the dance floor, things become complicated when they discover they have a mutual connection outside of the dance studio. Alice is married to Fernand (Sergi López), one of the convicts J.C. oversees on a daily basis. Furious to learn that his wife has been dancing with one of the guards, Fernand sets out to learn the Tango behind bars. Fernand’s quest causes an upheaval both inside and outside the prison.
It is at this point when the script, co-written by Anne Paulicevich and Philippe Blasband, attempts to tackle several storylines to varying success. There is not only the tale of J.C. vying with Fernand for Alice’s affection, but also the mystery behind Alice’s relationship with Fernand’s partner in crime Dominic (Jan Hammenecker). Another subplot involves Alice’s emotionally charged son Antonio finding his father’s gun hidden within their home. Of course there is also the art of the Tango, which plays a central role in arc involving the prisoners being rejuvenated by the power of dance.
Director Frédéric Fonteyne does an admiral job of trying to juggle the various storylines, but ultimately succumbs to the weight of the muddled plot. Tango Libre works best when highlighting the Tango itself. The film really comes to life when focusing on how learning the Tango has provided the prisoners, especially Fernand, with a new outlook on life. The dance scenes are exquisitely shot as Fonteyne captures both the mesmerizing grace and complexity of the Tango’s movements. He even manages to mine great comedic moments out of the concept of prisoners learning to dance. One hilarious scene revolves around Fernand searching the prison for an Argentinian simply because he believes anyone from Argentina should know how to Tango.
The comedic aspects of the film work well in certain segments, especially the facial expressions of Damien, but at times feel out of place with the more dramatic moments. This is especially noticeable in the last act that seems to never find its stride. The script cannot decide which storyline it deems the most important. As a result the Dominic, Alice, and Fernand triangle never feels as satisfying as it should. The same can be said for the Alice and Antonio arc, which is by far the weakest of the numerous threads.
Although Tango Libre’s script feels misguided at times, the performances in the film are what maintain the viewer’s interest. Sergi López provides another great performance as the hot-headed Fernand. He and Jan Hammenecker provide the film with some of its best moments. You cannot help but wish there was a companion film that documented Fernand and Dominic’s life prior to their prison stint. Anne Paulicevich and François Damiens also display great chemistry despite the fact that the script can never figure out what direction it wants to take their relationship. Paulicevich in particular has the most complex character in the film yet she succeeds in keeping Alice intriguing.
Tango Libre is a solid film that could have been a great one had the script been tighter. The comedic moments and performances succeed in keeping the viewer’s attention throughout. However, like a beginner learning the Tango, the films missteps do not allow for a truly graceful production.
Tango Libre is screening on Sunday, April 14th at 6:30 pm at The Royal (608 College Street). Tickets can be purchased at the Cinefranco website or at the theatre.