Casanova by Beatriz Oria

Domesticating the myth

Casanova (Lasse Hallström, 2005)


Beatriz Oria 

Hallström’s Casanova unashamedly presents itself as widescreen entertainment in its recreation of the legendary womaniser. The abandoned child of an actress, Giacomo Casanova (Heath Ledger) leads a hedonistic life of sex and romance until his last conquest (a novice) almost gets him hanged. He is then advised to marry a virtuous girl in order to avoid the Inquisition’s threats. He arranges a marriage with a young lady (Natalie Dormer), but the very next day he falls for independent Francesca (Sienna Miller), who leads a double life writing pre-feminist pamphlets under a male pseudonym. From that moment on Casanova sets up a charade full of mistaken identities and cross-dressing in order to win her. The film tries to find a justification for Casanova’s behaviour in his mother’s desertion as a child. Thus, Hallström attempts to provide the narrative with a (somewhat simplistic) psychoanalytical explanation, since it implies that Casanova runs from one woman to another in search for the lost mother. It is only when he recuperates her that this quests stops and he is able to commit to a single woman. Casanova then abandons his promiscuous lifestyle, passing on “his legacy” (in the shape of a much too obvious phallic spear) to Francesca’s brother (Charlie Cox).

    Casanova does not attempt to be a historical film for a single minute, focusing instead on plain entertainment. In any case, Hollywood’s flagrant appropriation of a historical figure for its own purposes is certainly remarkable. Casanova is a perfect example of how mainstream cinema is not only able to change people’s perception of history (as has often been the case in such films as Braveheart), but also of its ability to manipulate the audience into believing any discourse a film wants to put forward. In this case, Giacomo Casanova, paradigm of promiscuity, hedonism and sexual freedom, is conveniently “domesticated” by Hollywood in order to endorse contemporary discourses about love which were absent at the moment in which the action is situated (1753). Thus, the unruly character of such quintessentially transgressive icon is tamed by Francesca’s discourse on “true love”, which includes such contemporary ideas as the union of love and marriage. This discourse is explicitly endorsed by Casanova’s surrender to Francesca and the idea of love she represents, thus naturalizing romantic love instead of foregrounding its constructedness as a cultural invention. The truth is that, by the mid-eighteenth century, arranged marriages among the high classes were still commonplace and the couple’s union was actually legitimised on the basis of economic and social conditions, never on love. Paradoxically, it is Casanova’s discourse (the one rejected by the narrative) that comes closer to the historical moment’s sensibility: he recognizes the legitimacy of arranged marriages and embodies passionate love, but always outside marriage, the only place where this kind of love could take place. On the other hand, Francesca embodies not only modern discourses about love but also quite a historically unlikely feminist position. Against historical evidence, the film shows its contemporary anchorage in Casanova’s infatuation for a woman who is presented as her equal in intellectual and physical terms, thus reinforcing contemporary ideas of equality between the sexes within the couple largely present today in western societies but clearly absent in 18th century Europe.

    One of the greatest merits of the film resides in its plot, which elaborates an amusing game of mistaken identities. Although it misses the opportunity to go deeper into Francesca’s double identity as man/woman, which could have raised interesting questions about gender construction, the film develops an entertaining comic plot whose complexity increases as the end approaches. However, Casanova reaches a point where the spectator cannot help but wonder whether the film will be able to offer a satisfactory resolution to a huge entanglement. Sadly, the answer is no. There is a scene near the end of the film which gives a very convincing impression that Casanova and Francesca are going to be hanged. I am sorry to say that this would have been the best option because it would have given greater credibility to the plot and, more importantly, it would have spared the viewer the embarrassing descent into farce and slapstick in a ridiculous swashbuckling action sequence which leads the film to an incredibly artificial happy ending. Even though the happy ending is an unavoidable convention of romantic comedy, the way everything falls into place for everybody at the end feels way too contrived. As I said before, the problem lies in the plot’s excess of ambition. A simpler story would have allowed for a much more satisfactory ending. To the final disappointment contributes Hallström’s lack of skill in the filming of action pieces: the last section of the film looks clumsy and plainly unbelievable (can you imagine a frantic escape on a ship slower than a gondola?). Hallström had proved his competence as a director in dialogue-driven films like The Shipping News (2001), Chocolat (2000), The Cider House Rules (1999) or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), but his lack of expertise in filming action is painfully evident here.

    The film also features other issues which will make fans of verisimilitude quite upset, to say the least: why does Francesca write in English if this is Italy? How come 18th century Venice looks like Disneyland? The film’s aesthetics is so impeccable and romanticized that Venice’s extreme beauty (and cleanliness) looks like a theme park, minimizing the film’s credibility, although, as I have pointed out before, verisimilitude is not precisely Casanova’s goal. However, in spite of the film’s many failures, it should be recognized that its screenplay certainly includes funny moments and witty lines, its main asset being that it never takes itself seriously. Besides, it is visually pleasurable and the actors’ performances are more than correct, making the film work most of the time. Especially remarkable in his role is Heath Ledger, who has shown his versatility this year in two diametrically opposed characters: (heterosexual) sex god in Casanova and gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain (2005). Even though his physical appearance is not particularly outstanding, he manages to compose a highly attractive and charming Casanova. Scattered brilliant moments, however, do not amount to a good film, and the embarrassing ending makes you wish Casanova had been hanged along with his true love and, speaking in fictional terms, the director himself.









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