That Sienna Miller’s character name, Francesca Bruni, is taken from the Bob Hope comedy Casanova’s Big Night (a film in which Casanova was played by Vincent Price — someone had a vivid imagination!) ought to clue critics in on the basic idea that Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova is not intended as a biopic or an historical study of the world’s most famous lover. Judging by the number of reviews that dismiss the film as frivolous and frothy — the very things it sets out to be — it seems to me that the point is being missed.
Casanova is a throwback to such artifacts as William Dieterle’s Madame DuBarry and Gregory La Cava’s The Affairs of Cellini — 1930s films that took historical characters and put them in stories that bore more resemblance to bedroom farces than history. There’s a smidgen of history in Hallstrom’s film (not a bad thing since I overheard some 20-somethings wonder who Casanova was), but that’s nothing more than a springboard. The intent isn’t even as weighty as, say, Shakespeare in Love. The whole point is a film that’s stylish, witty and romantic — three things that Casanova most definitely is. And I’m not at all sure what more can be asked of it.
The film never takes itself seriously and never lets up its breathless pace from the first sequence onward — something that keeps the viewer from worrying too much about its admittedly implausible plot that boasts more characters masquerading as characters they aren’t than does any Shakespeare play. By the end of the film, Casanova (Heath Ledger) has passed himself off as at least four people he isn’t; Francesca (Miller), who leads a double life to begin with, has disguised herself in drag three times; and so on. This works on the basis of speed and the performances of the letter-perfect cast, who seem to be able to adapt themselves to a new identity at a moment’s notice whenever the need arises.
If the film has any weightiness at all — apart from its pointedly satirical view of the Catholic Church of the time — it lies in the question of identity. After all, if Francesca is a woman who writes inflammatory books (a kind of romantic variant on women’s lib) in the guise of a man, why shouldn’t she resort to drag on occasion? Isn’t that also her? Since Casanova tends to be all things to all women — at least those in Venice — why should he be limited to one identity? And by the end, the question arises as to whether Casanova as a person exists or if it’s the brand name that matters (which, by the way, ties the film back to the Bob Hope vehicle).
That the film takes place in a society that goes in for masked balls where people can comport themselves in relative anonymity makes these shifts even more reasonable. Co-screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher explored some of these themes a bit differently in Richard Eyre’s (Iris) too little seen Stage Beauty last year.
However, it’s wrong — and beside the point — to try to read too much into this film. Casanova is basically a high-spirited romantic farce enriched by gorgeous settings and photography and bolstered by terrific performances.
Heath Ledger is a perfect Casanova, bringing to the character just the right mix of carnality, amused cynicism (“Well, she’s hardly a novice,” he mutters when accused of debauching a nun in training), indolence (he’s forever broke and dodging creditors), and genuine romance. Sienna Miller may lack the more obvious physical charms one might expect in her character, but that’s part of the point — and she makes up for it in brains.
However, in some ways, the film belongs to its supporting cast. As the villainous Bishop Pucci, Jeremy Irons is at his evil best. He’s just enough of a dullard not to be too menacing (do we really want genuine menace in a film like this?) and the character is just enough of a pragmatist to seem something other than a genuine religious fanatic. When a young lady worries over the loss of her respectability if she testifies that Casanova took her virginity, he assures her he can restore both her respectability and her virginity. “You can do that?” she asks in amazement. “Of course,” he tells her, “We are the Catholic Church.”
Even better is Oliver Platt as Francesca’s “mail order” fiance, Papprizio, the “lard mogul from Genoa” — a description that fits both his profession and his physique. Presented at first as a pompous ass, Papprizio gradually becomes one of the film’s most likable characters, and what starts out as a “fat joke” ultimately becomes something else entirely.
Then there’s Lena Olin as Francesca’s avaricious, yet finally sympathetic, mother. The only possible flaw with her is that Olin is simply more inherently sexy than the leading lady. But, hey, she’s the director’s wife and she’s extremely talented — unlike some directors’ wives who get thrust into their husbands’ movies (yes, I am looking at you, David Mamet). There’s really not a false performance in the film, but at least one more deserves special mention: British-born Iranian comic Omid Djalili as Lupo, Casanova’s servant. He is the perfect foil to Ledger’s Casanova, and the two have remarkable screen chemistry.
Is Casanova much more than a souffle of a movie served up by a filmmaker too often constrained by seriousness? No, perhaps not. But it’s a sad commentary that such a film is being written off because it’s not deep. I guess I missed the general memo that went out that said all art has to have a message. I do not think I am sorry I did. Rated R for some sexual content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke