Spotlight on British Director Sally Potter

Spotlight on British Director Sally Potter

By Jan Lisa Huttner

(First posted in 2005)

Argentinean dancer Pablo Verón takes flight in THE TANGO LESSON



British director Sally Potter is currently on a world-wide tour promoting her new film YES. The Chicago glitterati welcomed her with particular warmth since the star of YES is Joan Allen, one of Steppenwolf Theater Company’s favorite actresses. Like all of Potter’s films, YES is a visual and aural delight best seen on the big screen. This overview should help put you in the right mood before you go.


Sally Potter first achieved international recognition with ORLANDO, her 1992 adaptation of a playful novel by Virginia Woolf. Whereas Woolf presented the life of her character MRS. DALLOWAY through the prism of a single day, ORLANDO spans four full centuries. A nobleman born midway through the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Orlando goes to sleep sometime around the American Revolution and wakes up as a woman.

Orlando’s long life and many adventures allow Potter to explore sex and gender in the context of both geographical space and historical time. In the center is a tour de force performance by the enchantingly androgynous actress Tilda Swinton. But the real stars are costume designer Sandy Powell and art directors Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, all of whom received Oscar nominations. Powell, a relative unknown when Potter asked her to do ORLANDO, went on to receive an Oscar in 1998 for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, and another one this year for THE AVIATOR.


Then Potter completely transformed her style, from the epic to the intimate, in THE TANGO LESSON. Released in 1997, THE TANGO LESSON begins when a screenwriter/director named “Sally” has to move out of her London flat so her contractor can begin the first in an endless series of repairs. Relocating to Paris for a bit, she sees an Argentinean dancer named “Pablo” perform the tango one night, and falls deeply in love. She asks him to give her lessons and he agrees, but dancing together is frustrating. He’s simply too good for her. So after stopping in London to find that her flat is in worse shape than ever, she heads to Buenos Aires for more instruction.

“Pablo” is played by Pablo Veron who is, in fact, a famous Argentinean tango dancer, but Sally Potter, who was, in fact, a dancer in her youth, is a quick study. They eventually learn to accommodate each other and move together as one in scenes of heart-stopping, lyrical beauty.

How much of THE TANGO LESSON  is true? I asked Potter this when she was in Chicago (my own home town), and she said: “Sally is a character… I used my life as the laboratory to research this character, and… so memory and representation [become] forever intermingled…”


Back to the epic with THE MAN WHO CRIED (2000) in which a Jewish child is rescued after a Russian pogrom and adopted by a British family. They promptly change her name from Feygele (“Little Bird”) to Suzie, but Feygele/Suzie eventually escapes her miserable childhood, and moves to Paris (!), where she’s befriended by a Russian émigré and falls in love with a gypsy, all of this just in time to witness the first stages of the Nazi occupation.

Two men actually cry in this film, the first is Johnny Depp, who must send his lover away to keep her safe, and the second is Oleg Yankovsky, who weeps with joy when his long-lost daughter is in his arms once again at the end. Christina Ricci’s huge, innocent eyes register every tiny emotion as Feygele/Suzie, whereas chameleon Cate Blanchett is marvelously flamboyant as world-weary Lola. This may all sound like excessive melodrama, but Potter turns it into swooning romance.


In her new film YES, Potter refracts the epic through the intimate. “She” (Joan Allen) is an Irish scientist raised in America to keep her out of harm’s way. “He” (Simon Abkarian) is a Lebanese doctor who also fled the insanity of civil war, and is now working in a London restaurant. Lonely in the lives they have chosen, they are swept away by passion when they each look deeply into the eyes of the other. But they live in the post-9/11 world. Suspicion, hatred and rage surround them. Fundamental issues like sex and money, pride and power, pull them apart. Can they find their way back to love? With dance, music and poetry, plus tremendous visual flair, Potter moves them from “No” to: YES!


Sally Potter calls to us from the depths of her heart. The films of this unique woman artist are “must sees” that will forever enrich your life.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (7/1/05) – Special for Films for Two. Reposted with permission.

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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