Saturday, February 19, 2011

Shall We Tango?


My favorite dance to watch is the tango whether in a film or on the TV show Dancing with the Stars. I see the tango as the dance of pent-up passion that is slowly being released as the dancers pull into each other and then push away to the slow/fast pace of the music. Films centered around the world of ballroom dancing such as often feature the tango along with the rhumba to convince reluctant students that ballroom dancing can be sexy. However, the tango sequences in film that I enjoy watching are the ones that do not involve the dance studio.

My favorite tango sequence is the “El Tango de Roxanne” sequence from Moulin Rouge (2001). At this point in the film, the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) agrees to spend the night with The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to save the production of Spectacular Spectacular, a show written by her penniless poet lover, Christian (Ewan McGregor). Although Christian knows that Satine is trying to help him, he feels conflicted. The tango dancers dancing to the rearrangement of The Police classic “Roxanne” help to depict his subconscious imaginings of Satine with The Duke. While the background dancers display the passion that Christian has for Satine, the two main dancers’ actions depict the betrayal that Christian imagines Satine committing while seducing The Duke. Though Christian may know that Satine does not love The Duke, he cannot help wondering if the fake passion she shows The Duke now might turn into real passion later.

In addition to the music and the dancing, what makes this sequence fascinating is the use of lighting. With Christian, the red symbolizes the warm, free-spirit of the bohemian life. Notice that the windmill of the Moulin Rouge, the place where bohemians seeking “truth, freedom, and above all things, love,” is lit in red. Also, red, as the color associated with the heart and love, shows that Christian loves Satine from his heart. Unlike Christian, The Duke, lit in blue, displays the coldness of the aristocracy who understands love as a material possession. In his tower, he tries to seduce Satine with an intricate diamond necklace, thus covering her with ice. Once he realizes that he cannot possess her heart, he rips the necklace and proceeds to possess her body. Notice that toward the end of the sequence Christian is in blue while screaming “Roxanne” suggesting that he has now indulged in the same cold jealousy as The Duke.

Another tango sequence that I have discovered recently comes from Easy Virtue (2008). In this scene, John (Ben Barnes) has discovered that his American wife Larita (Jessica Biel) was on trial for the murder of her first husband. He is upset with her for lying to him. Larita, a city girl, has been struggling under the strict confines of the English countryside clashing constantly with John’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). John’s father, played by Colin Firth, understands Larita’s need to get out of the estate as he had refused to return home after the war. Here the dance is not releasing a romantic pent-up passion but a passion for being true to oneself. Larita knows that she can never fit into John’s country estate world. And John’s father never had an attachment to the estate either. The dance symbolizes their joint need for freedom from the stifling conventions of country estate living. It also shows John’s mother’s hypocrisy since she has been bothered by her husband’s past indiscretions yet she fully supports him dancing with Larita if it means that John will see Larita as an unscrupulous woman unworthy to be his wife.

Unfortunately, this clip does not show the whole tango from the film. However, I did find a fanvid that shows the whole tango (although a slowed down version) with the instrumental version of “El Tango de Roxanne,” which was a happy coincidence for me. So I thought I would include here as an example of how music and context can influence the reading of a scene. Seeing it on YouTube without any knowledge of the film, the clip shows the uninformed viewer Jessica Biel’s character seducing Colin Firth’s character.

For more information about the tango or to see a list of films featuring the tango, click here.


  1. Moulin Rouge made Roxanne enjoyable for me . . I never noticed the color theme!

  2. omg i LOVe moulin rouge and when they Rozanne it just made it 10x better