Sunday, September 21, 2008

one-way ticket to venice

“There’s no shame in being a writer.” –said to a suspected sqacrilegious writer tortured by the Inquisition

I’ve said before that Casanova is one of my pet subjects. The question is why it took me so long to see the David Tennant Casanova, and equally why it took me so long to see the Heath Ledger one. I have no idea. Anyway, I finally saw it. Much as I love David Tennant and respect what Russell T was trying to do with his version, I think the Lasse Hallström-directed version is slightly better and more cohesive.

Perhaps because I’ve just read a book on Mozart, I’m better able to appreciate the tone. Russell T’s version was farcical, certainly, and in its approach, ultra-modern. This version is certainly comic in tone, but it’s got all the hallmarks of Mozart’s Figaro or Cosí fan tutte—mistaken identities, disguises, plays-within-plays—that bring it somewhat closer to how the real Casanova’s life in 1753 might have played out. It also makes it delightful fun that made me laugh out loud several times. Though it is a fictional account, it admits in the beginning that the tale it’s about to tell is invented (though not in the way you expect). It opens, in fact, in a very similar fashion to David Tennant’s version. There is the old Casanova, writing his memoirs, imagining us back to when he was in, er, peak physical form. As in the other version, with David Tennant romping around half-dressed with various women in beds and escaping from irate husbands, we have Heath Ledger romping around half-dressed with various women in beds and escaping from irate husbands. I guess it’s the economical way to get into character.

Instead of a broad survey as it were of Casanova’s “career,” the filmmakers have (deliberately, I hope) set it in Venice in one year, to revolve mostly around one main seduction, during a period when the historical Casanova was a) in fact in Venice; b) involved in one of his longest-lasting affairs, with the mysterious, voyeuristic, bisexual M.M. To a much larger extent than the DT version, this one takes decided jabs at the nuns/novices (I so did not mean to make that pun) Casanova loved to seduce (and often impregnated). This was a very, very funny part of the movie. As in DT, Casanova’s valet has a large role, though this version is more Jeeves than bad attitude. There’s a fun homage to escaping from the leads, which as I mentioned in the other review, actually happened.

The real Casanova would have loved all the gender-bending in this film (to be fair, there was a healthy and mostly accurate amount in the DT version). Very shrewdly, the woman who becomes more of a partner rather than a flavor-of-the-week is Francesca Bruni, a writer who spends part of the film in drag (see Shakespeare in Love, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, etc), defends her man in court (The Merchant of Venice), and writes proto-feminist pamphlets under a secret male pseudonym (encouraging women to burn their corsets, even though they weren’t called corsets yet, they were stays). She also is an expert swordfighter somehow and a scientist (the balloon ride was lovely but hot air balloons on that scale weren’t invented til at least twenty years later). I don’t really like Sienna Miller so the fact I liked her character attests to the strength of the writing. I did love all the visits to the printers, to the garret where the man Francesca employs to act as her ghost-writer. It goes without saying that cinematically the film was without parallel. Venice has fascinated me for the last ten years, so seeing St Mark’s Piazza, the Bridge of Sighs, and the magnificent Shrovetide ball interiors (to be fair, the dancing was a bit staid—I’m more inclined to agree with the rocking out presented in the DT version) was spectacular.

For the amount of hamming it up that two of the characters do, it’s fitting that Casanova’s rival in Francesca’s affections is a lard “mogul.” Oliver Platt was not only absolutely hilarious as the buffoonish Patrizzio (fair enough, he was almost too ridiculous and stupid to be believable) but came to a wonderfully sweet and unexpected ending where he actually became an ally rather than an enemy. You see, Francesca’s widowed mother Andrea (Lena Olin) wants to marry her off to Patrizzio of Genoa (who has a suitcase shaped like a salami!) to ensure against the family debts and provide a living for her son (in love with the virginal Victoria whose father wants her to marry Casanova!). I thought the pouty, repressed Victoria looked awfully familiar until I realized it was a blonde Natalie Dormer! (The hands-down funniest scene was the over-eager Victoria under a table at the masquerade ball ... erm ... how can I put this politely? I don’t think I can—pleasuring Casanova, who she thinks her husband-to-be is while he’s trying to carry on a conversation with her father, Francesca, and Andrea. The real Casanova would have loved that!)

The other ham is certainly Jeremy Irons as Bishop Pucci. Undoubtedly the clergy were none too pleased with Casanova; I think he was studying for the priesthood before he was thrown out. (He was also studying to be a lawyer which is why the scene of the debate between Francesca and her male rivals is quite apt.) In real life he had the protection of Signor Bragadin, but here it’s one of the Doges, making him considerably more immune to that nasty Inquisition and Irons’ nasty, hypocritical Bishop. A deleted scene hints that many of the clergy had their own mistresses, but for the most part, the writers’ attack on the Catholic church is confined to its (in their eyes) hypocrisy and arrogance: “Heresy is whatever I say it is.” The action turns surprisingly dark when both Casanova and Francesca are sentenced for hanging, she for heresy, he for fornication and adultery. (A hint of Perfume if not Pirates of the Caribbean!) I was rather amused when Casanova turned Dread Pirate Roberts at the end, but I will say no more.

It was a stroke of genius for Alexander Desplat to write the music in the style of that other famous Venetian, Vivaldi, complete with mandolins and harpsichord; it really lent a luminousness and sense of fun to every scene, as much a character as the filmic beauty of Venice itself. Similarly, aside from a few faux pas like sunglasses (!) and purple ecclesiastical gloves, Jenny Beavan’s costumes really look both spectacular and in period. Though the film acknowledges that a) Casanova is always in debt; b) his mother was an actress and he came from humble origins, it doesn’t make as much of an issue of it as the DT film did. Of course, I suppose it must boil down to how you perceive Casanova. While David Tennant is quite attractive, he can do the gangly, awkward thing, which is no doubt why he was cast: that Casanova was a bit of an outsider looking in, always trying to compensate for being born outside the normal order. By contrast, Heath Ledger looks a bit more like Casanova did, is handsome in the more traditional sense, and even admitted that the role wasn’t heavy-duty, acting-wise.

So, were my pet peeves antagonized or assuaged? Well, did people go around calling him JACK-a-MO? Yes, they did, unfortunately, though far less than in the DT film. Were his eyes brown like they were supposed to be? Yes, thank God. I am disappointed to suggest, yet again, that for a film about Casanova, it was surprisingly tame, sex-wise. Like I said last time, I wasn’t expecting porn, but . . . well, considering that two actors I find extremely attractive both get cast as Casanova , I was hoping for a bit . . . more. Anyway.

I found it quite enchanting. I really liked it.

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