Lasse Hallström’s Casanova just never quite makes it off the launch pad, due to the Gordian knot of plot twist after twist as much as anything else.
Giacomo Casanova (Heath Ledger) does pretty much what his reputation would demand: he woos women and has sex with them regardless of their status with regards to marriage. He does this in pretty much the only place the middle 18th century would permit, Venice. He is protected by the prince but sought after by the Inquisition (yes it was still called that at that time). Casanova falls for a woman, Francesca (Sienna Miller) who tries to prove that women are the intellectual equal of men by dressing as a man to give lectures in places like the university. She is betrothed to a man she has never met, Paprizzio (Oliver Platt) in order to save her mother (Lena Olin) and brother (Charlie Cox) from poverty.
The prince demands that Casanova marry during Carnival so the papacy doesn’t basically squish they squishy town a debauched place popular primarily for that reason. He finds a woman to marry, but she happens to be the object of longing for Francesca’s brother Giovanni. What follows (and what happens during all this) are a series of mistaken identities, chases, one decent sword fight that goes on a little long, and attempts at Oscar Wilde type sarcasm.
Here is where the warning for a plot twist warning would go, the problem is there are so many twists, should I just try to untie and explain, this would be the longest essay I’ve written. Instead I will focus on a couple of the salient and common things in the film.
First the good. There are nods to at least three other movies/plays: Titanic , The Taming of the Shrew (more on this below), The Merchant of Venice. Casanova is a comedy so the connection to Titanic is based on the idea of being betrothed to someone for the sole purpose of saving a family from penury. Francesca is a headstrong woman who considers herself to be the mental equal (and fencing equal) to any man and is a virago with a hair-trigger; Shakespeare would call her Kate. He would also call her Portia. Francesca comes to the court dressed as a man to represent Sr. Casanova; Portia does the same thing to create what amounts to a breech of contract by insisting that the contract between Shylock and Antonio calls only for a pound of flesh and nothing at all except flesh. None of this is a bad. Allusions help illustrate scenes or entire stories without having to retell parts of the story unnecessarily—that is one of the central reasons we have the literary device.
The acting is ok on all fronts with one exception. No one turns in a crap acting job but Oliver Platt is brilliant at playing a fat fop of a merchant whose product is lard. His character was built around lard (please forgive the necessary pun) so hamming up his foppery is necessary and it is usually very funny.
I have a prime rule about films, regardless of theme, quality, subject, whatever. If you are making a film, it needs to be pleasing to the eye (or fit the theme of the movie; I doubt anyone would consider a Cronenberg film to be eye-chocolate, but they do fit the subject matter). Films set in present day tend to do only so-so on this front. One of the reasons people tackle period pieces is specifically for the eye-candy nature. This allows costume designers, set designers, and other talented people to go a little wild with cloth and color where modern day films tend to shackle the same talented people. Casanova delivers on this front beautifully. The costumes and sets put it in the same league as Amadeus, Dangerous Liaisons, and Marie Antoinette among many others. The problem is that these facets are not enough to save the film.
And this links to . . . and now the not so good. No fewer than 5 people use alternate names, costumes or both. It isn’t necessarily confusing, since it basically makes sense, but what starts out as a relatively mature and intelligent use of these alternate identities becomes a farce of itself as the movie grinds on. Again, this has Shakespeare written all over it, but a quick mental scan of the plays has no more than 3 alternate identities in a play (you can argue that Twelfth Night has more than three, but that would mean you count those mocking Malvolio in a cage in the dark are playing different people—they are not, they just change voices). Any trope used too often causes the audience, usually, to get tired of it especially if there appears to be no control over it.
Mr. Ledger has done this film before, and more successfully. He was the Petruchio to Julia Stiles’s Kate in the teen film 10 Things I Hate about You which is a modern telling of The Taming of the Shrew. 10 Things is funny as is Casanova, but the one-liners and other quick sniping back and forth in the teen film work where they fall flat more often than not in the “mature” film.
Casanova isn’t a waste of time, but it isn’t something to seek either. If you want to see a semi-romantic comedy with starring Mr. Ledger pick up 10 Things I Hate about You first.
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