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DECEMBER 22, 1997:  The plot of Sally Potter's luscious "The Tango Lesson" is simple: Potter discovers the tango in Paris, becomes devoted to tango master Pablo Veron and talks to him about making a movie, where she, unlike in the tango, will be able to lead. Aided by Veron's alternately athletic and playful choreography, and the ravishing black-and-white of Robby Muller's cinematography--chalk, shadow, gray--"The Tango Lesson" unfolds with the silken grace of a dream.

It may be the most maverick act by a filmmaker this year. Many who loved the bursting color and blooming, eclectic music of her "Orlando" would probably be perplexed by a description of the relative straightforwardness of "The Tango Lesson." "Oh good," the 47-year-old writer-director-dancer-musician-singer says with a small smile. "I think it's probably unconscious, not a reaction against 'Orlando,' but a reaction toward something more austere and simple. The form that 'Orlando' took, with all its baroque intensity, is simply that which was appropriate for the story. I have no interest whatsoever either in repeating myself or in being a commodity. I never think of myself of having a career at all. It's just going from one passionate project to the next, whatever it may be. I don't like the idea of smart career moves."

"The Tango Lesson" plays beautifully, but to some, Potter placing herself in the center of the film might sound like the worst sort of hubris. Others will dwell on whether the story is "true." "I wanted to play with that," she says. "Is she acting or is this fly-on-the-wall? But I wanted to make it sufficiently structured that if you think about it, you know it can't be. But I also wanted immediacy, not with the language that television gave us, but with the language John Cassavetes gave us. I wanted to communicate something which had moved me so deeply, not for reasons that I could understand, but to see if I could seduce people into coming with me on that journey, into the interior of the art of dance, to put something primal at the core of the film."

Potter shows glimpses of a violently colored thriller called "Rage" that she did not make, one that would have been more Hollywood hothouse than small-scale arthouse. She sees no valuable distinction in scale. "Even when I was making little 8mm films, I've always worked on the assumption that the film was going to be seen by millions of people. I was always completely, consciously aware that cinema is a mass medium. However, I see the small and large films as facets of the same jewel. You never know which is going to reach the audience, so you're working to millions, but also to one. It's a mass medium but one that works in intimate ways. You are addressing one other human being when you make a film, and you reach out to that person with as much respect and love and assumption of their complexity as possible.

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