Wednesday, April 29, 1992

Pretty posers prop up Naked Tango

The Toronto Star - April 29, 1992

You've seen those fashion spreads in some of the higher-concept glossies? Vogue magazine, for instance, where unreal meets surreal and real people are whitefaced into blankface?
They are mere lines and angles, reduced to a foot just so, a hat brim angled more so, the face - never as important as the image, the line - shadowed.
The look, such style, such sophistication, you've thought. But, a small unbidden voice inside may have piped up, so silly.
You've just summed up Naked Tango.
This is the directorial debut of Leonard Shrader, the man who wrote (and was nominated for an Oscar for) Kiss Of The Spider Woman. He wrote this one too. This, however, has less to do with the finished project than the fact that the co-producer (one Milena Canonero) is a costume designer. This movie is so heavy into poses, it should have been in Vogue. Or Madonna should've been in it.
Instead, languishing, leaning, lounging to the right and left (and never, never blocking the view of the memorable and fantastical moody sets) are Cesar-winning French actress Mathilda May and American Vincent D'Onofrio.
D'Onofrio can be seen to far better advantage right now in Robert Altman's The Player. He's the murdered writer.
May has worked in 23 other French and Italian language films, including Claude Chabrol's Le Cri d'hiboux, for which she won France's equivalent of an Oscar.
In Naked Tango she is a prop; he is a prop, too. As lovers who hate each other, occasionally she will clench, he glower, she quiver, his nostrils will flare.
Very occasionally.
Most of the time they arch their necks (her) or backs (him) and stand. Or dance. But never deliver.
Naked Tango is a bloodless, passionless rendering of a time and place rife with glamour and macabre mythology, and of a story that cannot possibly be true, but is.
And centring on and based on a dance banned in public until 1919. At first danced exclusively by men, the tango supposedly imitated the sinister, deadly moves of the street gangs flourishing in Buenos Aires then. When Valentino danced a fandangled tango in Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse, its secret was out and the dance was open to Europeanized (read sanitized) variations.
But in the underworld of Buenos Aires, it was always a naked mime of sinewy lust (not love), machismo, obsession and danger.
It was the dance of the gangster; it was danced in La Boca, the waterfront slum where legalized prostitution opened the door to white slavery and turf wars between different ethnic based mafia-type organizations.
In Naked Tango, a young bride (May) becomes a prisoner in a brothel when she bolts from her older, staid husband the judge (the veteran Spanish actor Fernando Rey). She assumes the identity of a young Polish Jew whose impoverished family have sold her into marriage in Argentina for a dowry.
But the traditional Jewish wedding is a sham, as is the ardent husband ( Bad Boys' Esai Morales) who is a sleek, feral gangster, under the thumb of an even crueller character, the tango master Cholo (D'Onofrio).
When this gangster meets the would-be whore, they don't talk, they dance. The violins throb, the high heels (his) writhe on the smooth floor as they slide into the shadows (for more artful camera work) into an abbatoir (in case we hadn't cottoned on to the dance/danger connection) and through Colossus-sized limbs of women in silk stockings, statuary in a brothel part Arabian night, part nightmare.
Shrader has made the whole thing impossible and improbable, yet this outlandish garish tale is true. Or at least fact-based.
There actually was a Zwi Migdal Society or Polish/Jewish Immigrants Self Help Society, a gangster-run operation that ruled the Buenos Aires waterfront for 24 years. At the height of its power, it had 400 members and ran 1,000 brothels filled with some 30,000 women they'd lured from Europe with promises of a traditional Jewish wedding.
As appalling as this heretofore hidden slice of history is, it is a powerhouse of a story. Think of the movie it might make.
Might still make.
As long as it, too, doesn't turn an electrifying true story into a dated dance poster.
Naked Tango
With Vincent D'Onofrio and Mathilda May. Written/directed by Leonard Shrader. R. At the Cumberland.