Jean-Claude (Patrick Chesnais) is a sad, grey man, unhappy in his work and unhappy in love. (He's divorced.) He shares his office with his son who desperately wants to leave the business but instead retreats to a home packed with plants. His PA confesses that she has so messed up her life that all she has is her dog.
Ordered by his doctor to take up a physical activity, Jean-Claude joins a tango class where he falls for Francoise (Anne Consigny). Francoise falls for him, too, despite her impending marriage to her loser would-be author boyfriend (Lionel Abelanski).
Jean-Claude and Francoise seem to be on a tentative path to some kind of happiness when Jean-Claude learns that Francoise is engaged. Shocked and hurt, he retreats deeper into his shell. Then the death of his father (Georges Wilson) - a pathetic old man whose inability to express love for anyone has left him isolated and bitter - forces Jean-Claude to confront the emptiness of his own life. He returns to the tango class, takes Francoise in his arms and dances with her.
That's it. Yet this tale of misery and emptiness is one of the most feel-good movies I've seen in a long while. 'Here,' it says, 'your life can be sad and empty but you can change it by allowing the possibility of the redemptive quality of love.' There's no sex, no grand passion - all that is offered is that two people might dance together. And that's enough.
And it's funny. Laugh out loud funny. Like the moment when Jean-Claude plucks up the courage to buy Francoise a perfume and spends ages with a sales assistant choosing the right one, only to be told that his choice is called 'Intense Passion.' 'Would you have the same scent but with a different name?' he asks.
It is a film in which the quality of the silences and the tiniest changes of expression say more than a thousand lines. The most important moments have no dialogue and, when people do speak, they use words banally to hide their feelings. Sat in his car in the pouring rain, Jean-Claude and Francoise move toward their first (and only) kiss via a conversation about the relative merits of French and foreign cars. Patrick Chesnais's brooding, craggy gloom and Anne Consigny's extraordinarily mobile face with its bewitching half-smile are ideally suited to this sort of thing and the other characters, too, are well cast, finding something to humanise even the most unsympathetic of them.
Given the importance of tango to the film, it is a shame that the only professional tango shown is, at best, mediocre. Perhaps that's deliberate because it is the technically inept but passionately committed tangos of the students in the tango class that best capture the soul of the dance. Still, it's unfortunate that when the school make a trip to the theatre to see a performance, it is quite so poor.
Overall, though, this is French cinema at its best: thoughtful and intelligent but unpretentious and, in the end, joyous. The sub-titling is good enough to carry the dialogue (though a smattering of French will make it more fun). This is definitely a film worth braving the foreign-language movie ghetto for.