How can you make a man who’s been dead 200 years seem even deader? How can you make a limp, enervated film about one of history’s most energetic lovers? Call Lasse Hallström.
Hallström is one of those directors (and they are legion) whose reputation seems to far outstrip the actual quality of his work. He has a gift for great, casually beautiful images, but what else has he got? His resolutely conventional style offers a good working definition of “middlebrow” — it has enough lyrical flourishes to pass itself off as artsy, but the symbolism is heavy-handed, the emotions are simplistic and overdramatized, and any nuance is crushed beneath his big, Swedish heel. In such films as An Unfinished Life, The Shipping News, and Chocolat, he has specialized in tasteful, middle-of-the-road rabble-rousing — making movies that have “life-affirming” themes and the look of Oscar-bait but that keep punching at you with scene after hyped-up scene of melodramatic confrontation, so that even those with the shortest attention spans won’t be tempted to let their minds wander.
Hallström’s latest cinematic bonbon, Casanova, is a juvenile sex comedy in Rococo drag. The film purports to be an untold tale of Casanova’s life, and I wish it had stayed that way. It’s certainly been told enough times about other people; it’s that old chestnut about the man who falls in love with the one woman he can’t have because she’s disgusted by everything he stands for, so he has to pretend to be reformed in order to win her but winds up accidentally being really reformed. The plot is a litany of false or mistaken identities and opportune coincidences; it has the mechanics of farce, but none of the buoyancy. The actors speak their tired, sodden lines — in a variety of real and fake English accents, though they’re playing Italians — and each one lands with a thud. The script is credited to Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, from a story by Simi and Michael Cristofer, but it plays as though it were written by a computer program — enter the title character’s name and a few biographical details, and out pops a screenplay. (It’s said the gifted playwright Tom Stoppard did an uncredited rewrite — what must the script have looked like before he got his hands on it?) Rather than being sexy, the film is anemically lewd, with little more actual eroticism than a Benny Hill skit — with a few judicious edits, it could be a Disney cartoon.
It’s a particular disappointment to find Heath Ledger in the title role after his hat trick this year in Lords of Dogtown, The Brothers Grimm, and Brokeback Mountain. While the quality of those films was variable, the quality of Ledger’s performances wasn’t, and he displayed a remarkable range. He’s not bad here, but he’s not really very good either. If anything he seems a bit bored — the role doesn’t require him to do much more than be charmingly rakish, and he knows as well as we do that he’s capable of much, much more. His portrayal of Casanova is a fair approximation of the historical figure, but everything else about the story is not only fabricated but trite and uninvolving. The film is strewn with lazily recycled lines and jokey anachronisms — “This is the last time I’m traveling coach,” says a character when her carriage hits a rough spot — it fairly reeks of flop sweat. Neither the laws of physics nor human credulity hold fast here — stumbling into a debate about the rights of women, Casanova leaps across a great distance, breaking his fall with a miniature hot-air balloon previously held down by about three pounds of sandbags, and interrupts a speaker who is obviously a woman with a moustache pasted on (later the same disguise fools her own mother). This woman is Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), who will become the reluctant object of Casanova’s affections. Known to me previously only from her small, bimbo-ish roles in Alfie and Layer Cake, Miller is a bit of surprise here; being a brunette changes her — she actually seems smarter and more substantial than in those earlier roles — and physically she’s a good match for Lena Olin (who plays Francesca’s mother and is Hallström’s wife in real life), but there’s also a bit of the young Annette Bening and maybe some Barbara Hershey. Francesca is an anachronistically liberated, self-sufficient woman, the author (under a pseudonym) of a series of controversial feminist tracts that the Inquisition would like to ban. It’s her intelligence and independence that draw Casanova to her, and you can see why: The plot requires that everyone else in the film be a complete idiot, existing only to be manipulated. Francesca’s betrothed, for instance, the vain, humongously fat Lord Papprizzio has an idealized portrait painted for her but defaces a beautiful palazzo with a giant advertising banner bearing an image of his true face in all its porcinity. Papprizzio is played by the reliable scene-stealer Oliver Platt, here serving as a sort of Uncle Tom for the obese, with his great piggy face so unnaturally ruddy that he looks rubbed raw. Platt is the butt of the worst, cruelest, most repetitive jokes in the film, constantly overflowing bathtubs and almost capsizing gondolas, but as an actor he retains his unusual appeal; indeed he can be strangely, charmingly boyish, as when he confesses to Casanova his self-consciousness about his weight. Even laid out nearly naked on a procrustean bed, his great (and presumably padded) girth humiliatingly exposed, Platt dominates his scenes. The film’s one other performance that rises above its inherent cartoonishness, or is at least entertainingly cartoonish, comes from Jeremy Irons as Bishop Pucci, “the pope’s most feared inquisitor.” Irons plays the bishop like a man who knows he deserves filet mignon but nonetheless tears into his tunafish sandwich with gusto. With his strawberry-blond wig and fussy purple-and-black high-collared brocade robes, Irons looks like a dowager aunt; should he be unavailable for a sequel, the producers might well inquire as to Maggie Smith’s schedule.
Hallström’s cinematographer is again Oliver Stapleton, who shot An Unfinished Life, The Shipping News, and The Cider House Rules, and Stapleton shows once more what great work he can do with a beautiful subject. Many of his shots of Venice have the crispness of Canaletto’s magnificent cityscapes, but a number of backgrounds, particularly toward the end, look jarringly fake. What’s the point in using expensive computer-generated backgrounds when they come out looking worse than old-fashioned rear-projection? But those cheesy fake backgrounds are more in keeping with the rest of the movie than Stapleton’s gorgeous Venetian panoramas. This bonbon is a confection grown stale and sickly-sweet with age.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()