'Our Last Tango' is a dance of love and hate (unrated)

Our Last Tango (Un tango más) is a dance romance but not in the usual Swan Lake or Step Up mode, where two people find love dancing together. Instead, María Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes, the renowned tango couple at the center of Argentine director German Kral’s strangely fascinating documentary, hate each other as passionately as they love the dance they do together.

And that’s the wonderful/terrible, tragic/comic contradiction at the heart of their story. Each is the other’s ideal partner, the dancer who completes the other. “I’d found my Stradivarius,” Copes says of meeting Nieves, when he was 17 and she was 14. “She was the only one, the greatest.”

But they pay a terrible price for artistic fulfillment. Nieves and Copes were the most famous couple in tango, and their careers trace much of the dance’s history, starting in the 1940s when it was “the joy of the poor,” to Copes’ eventually successful struggle to turn it into an international theatrical form, to the couple starring in the hit show Tango Argentino. They married, separated, re-united, came to hate each other, split but kept dancing together, literally cursing each other onstage. An oft-repeated clip shows them at the height of their fame, stark and sleek, moving with almost unbearably taut grace, frozen faces staring past each other. Our Last Tango is not only their story but a meditation on the source and the cost of being an artist.

The bitterness that grew between them over their half-century partnership was, in many ways, personally devastating. This is especially true for Nieves, who at 80, her age in the film, is alone and filled with regret at not having a family — while Copes, at 83, has a younger wife and two children, one a daughter who is now also his dance partner.

“Love is a lie,” Nieves declares. “You have to use men and throw them away.”

But oh, how they danced together. The unconventionally constructed movie mixes interviews with Nieves and Copes (separate, of course) and brief archival performance footage with scenes in which beautiful young contemporary dancer/actors re-enact moments in the couple’s life. In other scenes, those performers — fascinated stand-ins for the effort to understand Rego and Copes — dissect the couple’s relationship and dancing.

Photography directors Jo Heim and Felix Monti and production designer Matias Martinez give the film a lush, old-fashioned cinematic glamour, the camera gliding lovingly over smooth limbs and polished shoes. (The executive producer is Wim Wenders, director of a surrealistically beautiful film on choreographer Pina Bausch.) The music is authentic and excellent. The film, like everyone in it, is in love with tango.

A few re-enactments are realistic, like one which shows the young Nieves and Copes meeting at a provincial dance hall. But most are pure fantasy, such as a scene in which the young pair dance dreamily in the street, or one portraying Rego, who took a lover while Copes was on tour, torn between two male partners. The grace and virtuosity of the younger performers is seductive, but it doesn’t have the power of the older couple’s dancing. Is that a measure of their talent or the ferocity of the emotion between them?

Even Nieves and Copes’ personalities seem to embody traditional tango roles. He’s imperious, controlling, macho. “I didn’t belong to her,” he declares of his infidelity. “She belonged to me.” She is proud, capricious, sensual and fierce. “I danced with rage onstage,” she tells us. “It was magnificent.”

And so were they. The pair’s passion for tango is as moving as their hatred for each other is disturbing. Was it worth it? It’s an unanswerable question, and finally, not one that matters. A more accurate translation of the Spanish-language title is “One More Tango,” which captures the yearning that drives this couple. “In my dreams I’d dance for another 10 years,” Nieves declares. In Our Last Tango, she dances forever.

Cast: María Nieves Rego, Juan Carlos Copes, Pablo Verón, Alejandra Gutty, Juan Malizia, Ayelén Álvarez Miño

Writer-director: German Kral

A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 85 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Playing at: Coral Gables Art Cinema. The 8 p.m. Friday screening will be preceded by a 7 p.m. party with Argentine food and a performance by local tango dance group Alma de Tango. Tickets are $20, at gablescinema.com.

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