“Casanova, tell me I’m the only one!” A masked young woman play-acts with a masked young man, in a comedia d’ell arte. As director Lasse Hallström says in his commentary track for the new DVD of Casanova, this play “was a little bit of inspiration for the writers,” by a playwright who had “a interest in comedy based on the observation of human behavior.” From this scene in a town square, audience laughing uproariously, the film cuts to Casanova himself (or this movie’s version of him), played by Heath Ledger. Gazing intently into a young woman’s eyes (her back is to the camera, elaborately curled and powdered wig large in the frame), he tells her, “Don’t believe everything you hear. I don’t conquer. I submit.”
Mm-hmm. This would be the cleaned-up, wearisome, supposedly romantic version of the notorious Casanova. Gaudy and giddy, Hallström’s Casanova is full of energy but also sadly limp. The legendary lothario insists he has never “sought glory,” only “a moment that lasts a lifetime.” This pleases his current, er, conquest, who belongs to “an unusual order of nuns.” As he feeds her fruit, Hallström describes the room they built (“We couldn’t find the proper room of a nunnery,” he says, as if this is the point). The nun wants to bed only the “real” Casanova, and so he offers to demonstrate his prowess. Cut to demonstration, interrupted by the coming of the guards: “Tell me I’m the one,” she murmurs. “You’re the one.” he says, rushing off before he’s captured and/or killed by the guards. (Hallström notes here that the nunneries were indeed full of “activities,” and not just of the religious variety.)
Scampering and gallivanting, Casanova is caught up in a swirl of old-Venetian activities, from pig wrangling and dueling to hot air ballooning and (comedic Inquisition-style) torturing, but he’s actually quite the nice fellow, only gadding about until he meets the right woman, that is, Francesca (Miller), an 18th-century feminist who will set him straight, as it were, regarding the desires of “women.” While Hallström is fond of describing all the shots — which is faked, which is enhanced — this information is fairly dull, if detailed (he complains that costumes are too “comic,” though authentic). (That said, his commentary is considerably more interesting than the DVD’s other “extras,” including an extended scene, and three minor featurettes, their titles describing their limited ambitions: “Creating an Adventure” [with Hallström, Ledger, Sienna Miller, and screenwriters Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi], “Dressing in Style” [costume designer Jenny Beavan], and “Visions of Venice.”)
Though he actually remains quiet for a good portion of the film, when Hallström discusses themes or narrative devices, the commentary picks up. Revising the story of the wealthy and titled Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, the film proposes that Casanova is forced to keep track of his many lovers in “the pages of my life.” He sighs, “Oh god, I’m tired.” It’s not that his work is hard, exactly, but he has been at it for most of his young life, and other men are jealous and occasionally ride him out of town, after which he’s told he must be contrite, which he just can’t manage. If only all those women weren’t so demanding, then maybe he’d have a chance to keep a few promises or catch up on some sleep or write a few more books.
The “story” in his pages that Casanova means tells here has to do with Francesca. Casanova first spots this beauty when he’s escaping from some of the many men in Vienna who despise him (or his reputation, anyway). He’s galloping through an academy where she’s lecturing to a male audience. She’s disguised as a man, of course, for women cannot attend school, let alone lecture, as they only distract men from their self-claimed “serious” business.
Her topic: the state of heterosexual relations in the modern world, that is, the 18th century. Or something like that. She quotes an expert on women’s rights (a famous author who is, come to find out, actually her writing an alias), and predictably incites her listeners’ ire. They start yammering on about the importance of keeping women at the hearths where they belong, asserting that they will never stand for a woman among their illustrious number. Just then, she whips off her disguise with the clever rejoinder: “Too late, gentlemen!” Ah, heresy. Casanova happens by at this moment and quite appreciates her feisty performance, and surmises that, while he won’t conquer her, she will be unable to resist him.
Casanova doesn’t have time to chat, only ogle, for he is, after all, trying to elude the clutches of the Inquisition, here embodied by the paler than death Pucci (Jeremy Irons). Though Casanova can’t understand the man’s apparent personal dislike for him (“All I do is worship beauty,” He protests), he must stay a step ahead at all times, which leads to hijinks of the most tedious sort, including mistaken identities and marriage plots.
These last have to do with deals cut by parents in pursuit of titles and riches. To evade arrest, Casanova (under his other, titled name) has an agreement with Donato (Stephen Greif) to marry his virginal daughter Victoria (Natalie Dormer, who, Hallström says, quite rightly, “has a fantastic look”)), while Francesca is promised to the pork lard baron Papprizzio (Oliver Platt, horribly abused as the butt of a series of fat-boy jokes) by her impoverished mother Andrea Bruni, played by the fantastic Lena Olin, of whose introduction Hallström notes, “And my wife is right there, looking good, doing a great job.” indeed: Olin is the consistent bright spot in this dim film, at once elegant and so clearly too smart for all the shenanigans in which she must engage.
Though Francesca despises everything she knows about Casanova, she is quite taken by him when he pretends to be Papprizzio. As he tries to keep her separate from the real Papprizzio, Casanova also wants to keep himself out of sight from Pucci, while charming both Victoria and Andrea in order to give himself enough room to seduce Francesca. It’s a juggling act and then some, but for all the flouncing and running about, it’s very slow going.
The multiple climaxes occur at one of those everyone’s-invited masked balls (big surprise), for which Casanova comes equipped with a mask on a stick that features both black and white faces. The simplicity of this device suggests a kind of elegance quite missing from Casanova generally. It’s cluttered with overstated characters and clichéd plots and obvious deceptions to be figured out.
All the falling into place is even more disheartening than the sprawl of spasticity preceding. When Francesca learns of Casanova’s true identity, she’s suitably furious (“You stand for everything I write against,” she fumes, though I don’t think she quite stamps her pretty foot), though her mother is not so upset when she learn that the man for whom she has fallen, the lard baron who’s supposed to be marrying her daughter. Enough.