Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes redefined an art form. Likely the most important tango couple of the 20th century (and the 21st, as Nieves would tell you herself), they took the dance out of the nightclub and onto the stage. They perfected it in Buenos Aires and then unleashed it out into the world, performing to rave reviews everywhere from Broadway to Japan. They danced together for 50 years, igniting the stage with the rhythmic evidence of their dramatic love affair. They met as teenagers in the late 1940s and got married on tour in Las Vegas in 1965. In 1976, Copes had a child with another woman and their marriage fell apart. They continued to dance together until 1997, when Copes decided to end their professional partnership as well. Now, almost two decades later, they remain on bad terms.
This presents a unique problem for German Kral, the director of Our Last Tango. In the documentary portrait of their storied career and tumultuous relationship, Nieves and Copes only share the screen in archival footage of their performances. While both cooperated with the production, this is not a great reconciliation. Instead, Kral reconstructs their 50 years of personal and professional partnership without the benefit of their return to the stage. He tours their history with the help of a younger generation of talented tangueros, who reenact the most emotionally and narratively significant scenes of Nieves and Copes’s life.
This strategy works beautifully. Nieves serves as a historical consultant of sorts, guiding the young woman playing her teenage self on the night she met Copes. She corrects the choreography, explaining that they danced close that night, their eyes locked. Yet these reenactments quickly become less concerned with total accuracy. After the first dance begins, the woman playing Nieves is lifted up in the air by a crane, mid-turn. These scenes split the difference between physical and emotional reenactment, a stylistic choice that becomes more fruitful with each passing scene.
The most obvious comparison is Pina, which took the existing choreography of Pina Bausch and projected it into a wide, cinematic world. It’s likely no coincidence that Wim Wenders served as executive producer on Our Last Tango. As Pina uses dance as a form of elegiac tribute to an artist, Kral’s film uses the tango as a means of celebrating the now-defunct personal and professional collaboration of Nieves and Copes.
The difference here is the subjects are present and take part in the experiment. Kral showcases Nieves’s conversations with the corps of dancers tasked with representing her life and work. This also shakes up a more typical documentary dynamic. There is some traditionally shot interview footage, of course, but Kral also allows the dancers to interview Nieves themselves. These discussions highlight an enormous shared knowledge of the ins and outs of the art form, allowing the audience an intimate understanding of both Nieves’s character and her work.
In fact, it’s worth wondering why Kral left any more traditional documentary elements in his film at all. Nieves is an excellent interview subject, regardless of context, but the artistic heights of the dance scenes are undercut by mundanely shot, sobering comments from Copes and his second wife. Equally frustrating is the music written to score the segments of the film between dance numbers. Much of it is drab and sentimental, remarkably reminiscent of the Brokeback Mountain score. It seems strange to evoke that particular item from Gustavo Santaolalla’s resume, given his impressive work in nu-tango. Nieves and Copes’s story is hardly uplifting, but it is neither quiet nor maudlin. It shines, rather, in its bright and fiery reenactments, among the best of the year so far.
This review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14, 2015.