Alexandre Volkoff: Casanova (1920) | Flicker Alley
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Sweet Land of Libertines: Silent Film ‘Casanova’ Turns Sex into Politics

The world of the silent film ‘Casanova’ is where every wife is glad to cheat on her bullying husband or flee from her possessive lover because authority is always repressive.

Alexandre Volkoff
Flicker Alley
14 October 2022

Attention, fans of silent film. Flicker Alley presents a new Blu-ray/DVD combo of Alexandre Volkoff’s Casanova (1927) in a 2016 restoration from the Cinémathèque Francaise. Casanova opens with fireworks and frolic, and that’s pretty much how it continues for 160 minutes.

An early title card tells us there’s no greater admiration than that received from one’s servants. The servants here are two giggling yet strapping lasses who might as well be twins, plus one old crone who looks like she misplaced her broomstick. The object of their admiration first reveals himself by extending a hand from his bed curtains, implying where he spends much of his time. His head emerges, smiling to the pets and caresses of the handmaidens, as the camera cuts to darling little doggies of the toy variety rolling about on the floor.

What then passes for a plot is a series of picaresque incidents with lavish production value, glamorous design, and jillions of extras. Our incorrigible scamp of an anti-hero (played by Ivan Mosjoukine) runs around in powdered wigs, detachable beauty marks, jackets with jutting ducklike tails, and sprayed-on silk breeches. His vocation is having liaisons, and nary a woman under 80 crosses his path without attracting his eye. His tastes appear democratic, but we mostly see the very upper of upper-crust rendezvous, the better to justify what must have been an outlandish budget.

In the opening act, he is dunned by a dumpy, snarling bailiff who wants to requisition Casanova’s belongings to pay debts. Casanova dresses like a wizard and pretends that a huge grimoire of sorcery is the most valuable item he owns. His servants blow into hoses to puff him into huge proportions in a very bizarre effect that must be meant to imply something or other.

This sorcery gambit will land Casanova in hot water with the Ten, a star-chamber cabal of old fogeys who run Venice and constantly field complaints about his activities. One of Casanova’s stratagems is to ensure that almost all other men, especially those in power who resent and harass Casanova, are ugly old trolls of one sort or another. No wonder every woman in town prefers him. By presenting Casanova as forever on the run from the powers that be, he becomes a symbol of anti-authoritarian impulses to liberty and the joy of animal passions.

Or such is the theory in this film’s highly artificial world of the spoiled and unscrupulous. This is a world where every wife is glad to cheat on her bullying husband or flee from her possessive lover because authority always is repressive. Casanova’s proletarian loyalties are established when he rushes to the aid of an old fiddler who’s being abused by overweight periwigs. That’s where Casanova meets the young Therese (Jenny Jugo), disguised as a boy to conceal the fact that she’s been sold by her mother to some aristocratic masher. Even after Casanova rescues her, she likes to dress in male attire.

The height of Casanova’s dallying involves Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great. She’s played by one of France’s most popular stars, Suzanne Bianchetti, in the same year she played Marie Antoinette in Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

The most substantial storyline in Casanova involves Catherine overthrowing her boorish, incompetent husband, Peter III (or Pierre III, as the credits have it). He’s played by Germany’s Rudolf Klein-Rogge, a specialist in villains and megalomaniacs such as in Fritz Lang’s films about Doctor Mabuse. This is the same year Klein-Rogge played the mad inventor Rotwang in Lang’s Metropolis. Again, men in positions of power are shown as dangerous and incompetent, and only Catherine can save her country. She’s aided by Count Orloff (Paul Guidé), a friend of Casanova and the only other male in the story allowed to be handsome and dashing.

Numerous other women are played by notable silent divas, including Dianne Karenne (another who played Marie Antoinette), Nina Koshetz (an opera soprano), Rina De Liguoro, and Olga Day. Any bedroom activity is implied during fade-outs, although we get two different sight gags implying that Casanova’s head is under a woman’s skirt. Also, the silhouetted Dance of the Swords is much saucier than anything you’d have seen in a Hollywood version.

There’s a famous Mae West line about being a one-man woman: “One man at a time, dearie. One man at a time.” We might have applied a similar motto to Casanova, except that he doesn’t seem to confine himself to one woman at a time. The story keeps suggesting that this one or that one may be “the one”, but we soon realize, to paraphrase a Harold Arlen song, that if our man’s not near the woman he loves, he loves the woman he’s near. That’s how he functions as a symbol or idea, not a person.

Before it’s anything else, Casanova is a vehicle for Mosjoukine, one of the most famous Russian actors who emigrated to the West after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Known for gazing wantonly into the camera with a supposedly hypnotic glare, his screen persona was a cross between Rudolph Valentino and the aquiline John Barrymore. In other words, a handsome bad boy. Casanova doesn’t put him in their league, but he projects the role’s energy and high-flown foppishness. He doesn’t do his own stunts, like Douglas Fairbanks, but he’s in shape.

More myth than man and largely self-invented, Casanova was a notorious figure in 18th Century Europe. Born in Venice and getting into plenty of trouble there, he traveled widely and rubbed elbows with movers and shakers. He spent his last years as a librarian endlessly penning his memoirs, so his work is the primary source of his legend.

In films, Casanova has been played by Vittorio Gassman, Leonard Whiting, Donald Sutherland, Richard Chamberlain, Marcello Mastroianni, Peter O’Toole, Heath Ledger, and others. Among those who played the role on stage was Bela Lugosi. Casanova is consistently portrayed as a troublemaker and impulsive scoundrel, in thrall to his appetites and irresistible to women, who wreaks havoc in polite society by exposing its hypocrisies and corruptions.

In comparison with “respectable” society, his unrespectable behavior makes him a put-upon, recalcitrant, uncontrollable impulse for individual freedom via the libido. In providing all these women with what they want and evidently aren’t getting with satisfaction from the husbands who bought and paid for them, Casanova commits acts of political and social defiance that land him in prison. The established powers aren’t wrong to consider him a threat, for Empress Catherine’s episode details synchronicity between the female orgasm and revolution. Oh well, blame it on the Casanova.

Mosjoukine’s career and carefully cultivated persona owe much to his collaborator and fellow émigré Alexandre Volkoff, who directed him in several films, including Casanova. Theirs was among the most fruitful and extended director-actor collaborations of the silent era. Although Mosjoukine made a transition to talkies, his heavy Russian accent meant he pretty much had to be cast as Russian. When he remade Casanova as a talkie in 1934, he had to be dubbed. He died prematurely of tuberculosis in 1939.

Shot on location in Venice and the Austrian Alps, Volkoff’s Casanova belongs to a long string of expensive productions from France’s high silent era, a time of many biopics and literary themes. They belong to a species of popular commercial cinema often ignored or denigrated by critics and historians, akin to Hollywood’s historical Cinemascope epics of the 1950s or Italy’s “white telephone” melodramas.

Such dismissals sweep away lots of very well-made and popular films that still have much to tell us when we can get a proper look at them. This restoration of Casanova not only includes the standard tinted shots but a spectacular hand-stenciled sequence of Venetian carnival whose yellows, reds, and blues create a magical effect.

The most annoying element for today’s sensibilities is the comic relief of a little black valet. He’s possibly played in blackface by one Raymond Bouamerane, which sounds Algerian; we’d like to know more about him, but this is his only credit. In its unsatisfactory way, his character is another example of Casanova being a friend to society’s underdogs.

The new score is by Günter A. Buchwald, who tells an interesting anecdote in a bonus interview. He got the idea for scoring Casanova when he was invited to program his own choice for a festival of film music that never came to pass a few years ago. When asked if the festival had a theme, he was told “James Bond”. He realized that Casanova and Bond aren’t that far apart. That’s why, in the scene where Casanova leaps out of a moving carriage into a snow bank, Buchwald incorporates a few cheeky bars of the James Bond theme.