Naked Tango (1990)

Switzerland, Argentina, Japan, US / 91 minutes / color with some bw and some limited-color footage / Jane Holzer, Denise Rich, Jade M, Martin Hellstern, Praesens-Film, Sugarloaf/Gotan, Grupo Baires, Towa, New Line Dir & Scr: Leonard Schrader Pr: David Weisman Cine: Juan Ruiz-Anchía Cast: Vincent D’Onofrio, Mathilda May, Esai Morales, Fernando Rey, Cipe Lincovsky, Josh Mostel, Constance McCashin, Patricio Bisso, Javier Portales, Rubén Szuchmacher, Marcos Woinsky, Sergio Lerer, Hector Arbelo, Claudio Garófalo, Santos Maggi.

On a luxury liner bound from Le Havre to Buenos Aires, Stephanie (May), married just three weeks ago to the much older Judge Torres (Rey), is already weary of him. When she witnesses a young passenger throwing herself overboard, Stephanie impulsively takes the dead woman’s place, and arrives in Buenos Aires as the mail order bride of Zico Borenstein (Morales).

Fernando Rey as Judge Torres.

Esai Morales as Zico.

Alas, Zico and his sweet old mama (Lincovsky) intend to put Alba to work in their brothel—she’s just the latest in a series of women they’ve imported and enslaved under false pretenses.

When Alba in self-defense kills her first client, the jeweler Bertoni (Mostel), it seems her days are numbered, not least because Bertoni was connected to a notorious Italian gang, the Black Hand. Zico tells ambiguous henchman Cholo (D’Onofrio) to murder her, but a strange bond springs up between the two:

Cholo: “Don’t worry, Alba. I can never let anyone else kill you.”

The basis of that bond is tango, of which Cholo is a devotee and Alba an enthusiastic student. The tango substitutes for sex in their relationship, something that confuses Alba to begin with until her only friend in the brothel, the barber Gaston (Bisso), explains matters:

Alba: “Does [Cholo] like boys?”
Gaston: “No, darling. The only thing Cholo likes is himself. And tango.”

Eventually, as you’d expect, Alba persuades Cholo to broaden his range of interests.

Vincent D’Onofrio as Cholo.

Mathilda May will remain forever best known for her role as the space vampire in Lifeforce (1985), a role that made exceptionally few demands on the costume department. The notoriety of that performance has largely managed to disguise the fact that she’s no mean actress—good enough for Claude Chabrol, for one, who cast her in his Le CRI DU HIBOU (1987; vt The Cry of the Owl). In Naked Tango, she and Patricio Bisso, who also served as the movie’s costume designer, seem to be in a league above the rest of the cast, so far as acting chops are concerned. (D’Onofrio’s wooden and Rey is given very little to do.)

Mathilda May in three of her different guises as Stephanie/Alba.

Throughout Naked Tango the connections between tango and sex and tango and death are made pretty explicit. Aside from Cholo’s refusal of sex with Alba in favor of dancing tango with her, we see murder framed as an act of tango, we see street knife fights enacted as a choreographed recreation, we even see Cholo and Alba dance tango in a slaughterhouse, their feet splashing in a shallow bath of blood.

The choreography, which is quite splendid, is by Carlos Rivarola. The director of the music to go with the choreography (or is it the other way round?) is Thomas Newman, most of the tracks being traditional tango pieces. Some of these are tremendous—I may have to suss out the soundtrack album one of these days.

Patricio Bisso as Gaston.

The movie’s finale is so over-the-top, so suffused with narcissistic bathos, as to be absolutely risible . . . and yet I found myself ruefully admitting that, in context, it actually worked. What is tango, after all, if it’s not a self-aggrandizing, melodramatic, sex- and violence-imbued act of artistic narcissism?

Naked Tango recognizes that, and wallows gloriously in it.

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4 thoughts on “Naked Tango (1990)

  1. I might have the look this one up. Shame the theme isn’t Salsa – my wife and I – two left feet and all – have been dragging ourselves to classes for the past month or two!

    • I’m surprised you should say that, Sergio, to be honest. I (ruefully, but in a good way) liked it quite a lot, even though this sort of overblown melodrama isn’t usually my bag. Unlike her British political surnamesake, May keeps all the rest under control, somehow.

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