You can spend perfectly lovely time with Our Last Tango purely as a dance movie, with all the sexy pleasures that tango delivers. But for Maria Nieves Rego, one half of Argentina's premier tango couple, the dance of love in her 50-year partnership with choreographer Juan Carlos Copes curdled into a long-running duet of hate.
German Kral's documentary is mostly Maria's story, with lesser input from a grim-faced Juan, and it doesn't lack for grand gestures. Built from the ground up on exhilarating hyperbole, this ambitiously structured movie plays like non-fiction melodrama, layered with ungovernable passions that unfold as Maria walks through a nocturnally beautiful Buenos Aires, calling up the hurts and triumphs of a history as wholeheartedly embraced as it was filled with pain. A gaggle of slightly too rapt, too heavily scripted young dancers and choreographers listen, then weave her memories into exquisite street and soundstage routines, including a delightful riff on Singin' in the Rain tapped out on gold-lit cobblestones. Kral has worked with Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), who executive-produced Our Last Tango, and the influence of Wenders' dreamy romanticism is palpable in the camera's ecstatic whirls around the performers.
"Never again will there be a tango couple like us." Now 80 years old and stylish in a burgundy shag and knockout Cyd Charisse legs, even Maria credits her former partner with saving Argentina's famous dance from extinction and re-juicing it into an international craze. She visits the now empty spaces that were once the milongas, tango clubs frequented by Buenos Aires' working poor. There, she met Juan, and together they quickly moved into the spotlight. But it was Juan's creative flair as a choreographer that rescued them from poverty and saved tango from the threat of cumbia and rock and roll when he adapted the dance for the stage and took it to Broadway.
Tango depends on an intensely disciplined synchronicity, and the dance sequences, interspersed with footage of Nieves and Copes performing together well beyond middle age, are mesmerizing. But the real-life story behind Maria and Juan's perfect symbiosis is one of profound asymmetry that's baked not just into both their volatile temperaments — for sheer hubris, the two are about evenly matched — but into the fabric of entrenched Argentine machismo. Decades later, Maria remains bitter over her powerlessness to curb Juan's many infidelities and the two children he secretly fathered with a woman now his wife. "It's natural, otherwise I wouldn't be a man," Juan says serenely of his betrayals of the woman he also calls "my Stradivarius."
Perhaps by choice, but more likely because Kral means to seize the narrative reins for Maria, Juan takes a back seat in Our Last Tango, though he is brutally candid when he appears. "I couldn't stand her any more," he says off-handedly. For her part, "I was like a kitten in the shower being squirted with water." That didn't last long. Left without a family of her own and few cards to play in this struggle, Maria threw herself into her work, which, she says, was enhanced by her rage toward the man who exploited but failed to return her love.
That the two continued to perform together for years without speaking testifies to their joint monomania, to the handsome profits they both enjoyed, but also to their devotion to their art. When Juan's wife put her foot down at last, he severed his professional connection with Maria. But through them the tango endured and thrived and, having suffered a crisis of confidence, Maria recovered enough to dance again. We see her receive one standing ovation at Luna Park. This satisfyingly overwrought tribute movie hands her a second round of applause.