While we may think of the tango as requiring impeccable precision and synchrony, writer-director German Kral’s documentary Our Last Tango delves into the lives of some of its most prominent ambassadors, María Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes, through the undoing of their 40-year symbiotic partnership. The professional and romantic collaboration of yore is replaced by memories of betrayal, resentment, and bodily decay.
Kral doesn’t keep us from witnessing some of the wonders of the tango being performed, in archival footage of Rego and Copes as well as reenactments, but the documentary pivots around the wound of separation, the axe for the frozen sea within the couple, as Franz Kafka would have put it. Our Last Tango is a mourning piece of cinema, rather Argentine in its utilizing of a country’s signature dance to articulate its themes of love and hate, but terrifyingly universal in its storyline, one where a union is broken by a man who’s able to leave and move on and the woman stays behind never to recover.
Our Last Tango begins as though it were going to trace the history of the Argentine tango through an homage for its legendary dancing couple, now in their 80s. As we realize that Copes and Rego never inhabit the same frame while offering their increasingly different versions of the past, we begin to understand that this isn’t a documentary about dancing or the resilience of love, but a testimony to classic heterosexuality’s perverse blueprint, as she belongs to him and he doesn’t belong to her.
Copes digests the rupture of his coupledom with Rego as a chapter coming to a close, leading into a new love affair with a younger woman. Remarried and invigorated, he looks flexible and confident in his old age, with no plans for retirement. Conversely, Rego still faces the end of a love story and joint career as a kind of terminal abandonment (“a dagger lodged in the heart”), alone and rehearsing her swan song, despite trying to convince us otherwise. Whatever she’s learned through the trauma of separation, such as “love is a lie” and “the best a woman can do is to use men and throw them away,” feel like overtly conscious declarations unable to ever be truly internalized.
Copes’s memories are more direct, if not ruthless, and less embellished than Rego’s—as when they begin having problems immediately after their wedding in the 1950s and she says he took a break because he wanted to just tour by himself with other dancers, yet he doesn’t mince words about the episode: “I couldn’t stand her anymore.” Copes and Rego’s he-said-she-said alternation of accounts isn’t played for laughter, nor does it pathologize Rego’s protective delusions. Kral does justice to the gap between their respective memories by never suggesting that one version is closer to the truth than the other.
Instead, the question of truth is here equated to the essence of the tango—that is, its ability to articulate emotional contradiction so stunningly, its existence inside a reality of paradox that never has to resolve itself. Aggression and tenderness, passion and repulsion don’t clash as opposites in the tango, but co-inhabit the same space. By the time we understand that the final performance implicit in the film title will probably never happen, and that that’s precisely the point, we catch ourselves mourning this impossibility along with Rego, at once accepting and mad as hell.