Having watched Fellini’s take on the historical figure recently, I jumped at the opportunity to watch the more modern take starring Heath Ledger when my wife suggested it one night on a weekend. I wanted to compare the two, and they are vastly different films. I’ll talk a bit about the different takes later, but first I must address the film as it is.
The 2005 film by Lasse Hallstrom is a standard romantic comedy that takes a historical figure and makes him believe in true love. Heath Ledger plays Casanova as an earnest believer in love in its most transactional form meeting his match in Sienna Miller’s Francesca, a woman who writes tracts about women under a male pseudonym and dresses up as a man to essentially play practical jokes on the stuffy males in Venice’s university. She shows some kind of spirit that drives Casanova to real love. The problem is that his antics have attracted the attention of the Vatican, and Casanova must find a wife before Carnival in a week or he will be exiled from the country. He chooses Victoria, a young woman he had a dalliance with some time ago and still has the reputation of purity. She’s wild about him, her father agrees to the match, and when Casanova discovers Francesca and begins to fall for him, we have the makings of a farce.
Now, the film embraces farce to a limited degree in terms of its comedy, in particular during the events at Carnival, however that comedic bent doesn’t jive with the emotional throughline of the film. Casanova’s emotional journey is too earnest and wholesome to match the more farcical elements. It feels like the idea of a farce extended from an earlier version of the story where Casanova was pretending earnest love to bed Francesca rather than actually feeling it. I don’t know if there was an earlier form of the script that did this, but it would more naturally fit with the historical Casanova instead of this creation for the film.
Casanova ends up running away with Francesca after his long lost mother saves him from the hangman’s noose at the last second, and the young man who had obsessed over Victoria takes on the mantle of Casanova like he was Batman. This presents an opportunity for the movie to have its cake and eat it too with the first Casanova leaving his wayward life with the second Casanova, having followed that life through to its conclusion, act as a counterpoint, but the movie seems to not realize it and it functions as little more than an ironic twist with little to say for it.
The antagonist in the film is the Church as manifested by Jeffrey Irons’ Inquisitor. The frustrating thing about the film centers around him. Both he and Francesca have the same substantive objections to Casanova at the beginning, different on details and direction from which the criticism comes. They both see Casanova has an empty man with no interest in real love. The frustrating part is that the movie ends up agreeing by having Casanova change, to become a one-woman man. So why is the Inquisitor the bad guy by the end? Is it really just because he wants Casanova dead? If your antagonist and heroine agree on the substance of the protagonist at the beginning of the film, and the protagonist changes to match the vision of the heroine, shouldn’t that create a re-evaluation of the movie regarding the antagonist? I mean, the movie ends up agreeing with him to a certain degree.
But that’s it. The movie’s fine. It’s lightly entertaining. It’s frothy to the point that it can’t keep a cohesive thought in its pretty little head. It’s not good, but it’s a distracting 110 minutes at the movies.
Okay, so the comparison between this and Fellini’s Casanova is interesting. Fellini took the Casanova he saw through the historical figure’s memoirs and cast that man through his cinematic lens to create a distinct vision. Hallstrom takes a script by Michael Cristofer and Jeffrey Hatcher that looks at Casanova and changes him completely to give the audience a nice ending.
The irony is that the writers built in the ability to give the original Casanova an out to have his happy ending and also have the Casanova story play out in history, but they did nothing with it. Were they trying to say anything about the licentious life that Casanova the historical figure lived? They had him walk away from it in favor of a single woman, but then they kept Casanova going in the alternate form played by Charlie Cox. Did they want to say that the licentious life was unworthy and unfulfilling? If so, why didn’t the elder alternate Casanova express any regret over his life? Was the original vision of Casanova, the life that the alternate took over, a worthy life? If so, then why does the original leave it behind. Were they implying that the real Casanova would have turned away from his chosen life if he had just met the right woman? Considering the number of women he supposedly wooed, that seems doubtful.
And this ultimately becomes my problem with movies that go out of their way to insist on saying nothing. I’m not looking for a particular answer, a moral one, immoral one, or amoral one. I’m looking for art to say something. Anything. And here comes this bit of fluff with great potential to say something, even providing itself with avenues to do just that outside the realm of the source material that inspired it, and it says nothing at all. What you’re left with is a 110 minute experience that leaves you the second it’s over.