Menace the Venice
Womanizer, Thou Art Loosed in This Broad Romantic Comedy Lark
Aside from being a lothario of epic proportions in 18th-century Europe, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was also a soldier, spy, diplomat, philosopher, and even doctor of law. Lasse Hallström’s Casanova is not about that man at all. Instead, the director reimagines the Renaissance man as little more than the most infamous lover in all of Venice, if not in all of the Roman Catholic Empire. When the city’s chief magistrate grows impatient with Casanova complaints from the Vatican, however, he orders Casanova (Heath Ledger) to take a wife or vacate the city. Since Casanova is still waiting for his mother to return—she abandoned him as a child, conveniently creating the abandonment issues that prevent him from forming lasting affection—leaving Venice isn’t an option. So it’s time to pick a wife he won’t mind banging in between his escapades.
The virginal Victoria wins the honors, and newcomer Natalie Dormer hams up her screen time as she desperately tries to repress Victoria’s need to get laid as soon as possible. Even as his wedding preparations begin, though, Casanova becomes smitten by the intelligentsia wannabe Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), the most famous philosopher of her day. In this case, “philosopher” means something roughly equivalent to Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” articles. See, Francesca is that new period-flick cliché—the forward-thinking woman (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola in Shakespeare in Love, Claire Danes’ Maria in Stage Beauty). She would never marry someone like Casanova, which makes him, predictably, want her more. Chase ensues: Boy lies to steal girl from her lard-selling fiancé (Oliver Platt), boy loses girl because he’s a lying whore, boy gets girl back because this is a romantic comedy, after all.
Hallström’s laugh-filled spin on Casanova is a welcome improvement over Federico Fellini’s gloomy 1976 portrayal of the ladies’ man (starring Donald Sutherland), and Ledger is more fun than Richard Chamberlain was in the 1987 TV miniseries. Shot entirely in Venice, production designer David Gropman (Chocolat) creates the decadently lush atmosphere Casanova’s cast springs about with enthusiastic panache—the city has rarely looked so colorful and alive on the big screen. It’s the perfect setting for the movie’s sexed-up theme of religious repression vs. passionate sensuality, embodied by the Inquisition’s most feared investigator, the Inspector Clouseau-esque Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), who opposes debauchery because he’s not cool enough to participate. You get the impression the bishop would be more than willing to pardon Casanova if he helped Pucci get into the right parties.
A series of disguises and identity changes propels the plot, and they’re less superficial than they feel at first blush. Both Casanova and Francesca’s true selves are so hidden from the real world and each other that it’s only as the masks fall away that they fall in love with, you know, what’s inside and not their ridiculously good looks. Of course, it’s difficult to take Casanova’s affection for Francesca seriously since his pursuit of her is only presented as a game. And although Ledger does offer up some fawning looks to convey his sincerity, sometimes it’s hard to root for the guy: At a ball held during the city’s infamous Carnevale, Casanova sits at a table trying to hold a conversation with Francesca, her mother, and Victoria’s father as Victoria, hidden beneath the table, gives Casanova a blow job so stupendous he can’t keep from falling out of his seat. For a guy supposedly in love, this is conspicuous behavior.
Despite its frivolities, Casanova still manages to deliver more than its fair share of big laughs. The biggest comes from Ledger, who, notorious for rebelling against his pretty-boy image (see: Brokeback Mountain), makes you wonder what he was thinking when he signed on to play history’s greatest lover. The more interesting turn would have been the lead role in a period drama based on the real Casanova’s life, a tale far more intriguing than the substantive but silly one Hallström tells here.