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Rake’s progress
Casanova dabbles in farce and feminism

Casanova (Heath Ledger) has cleaned up his act in Lasse Hallström’s engaging romantic-comedy version of his life; he’s tamed the debauchery down to a tepid but bawdy R and learned to respect women and family values. As we’re shown in the introduction, where the crapulous roué pens his memoirs by candlelight, the seduction we’re about to see was not one of those recorded in the final cut of his 3700-page Histoire de ma vie. Those interested in the real deal might want to check out Fellini’s 1976 extravaganza with Donald Sutherland; a comparison of its overripe ennui with Lasse Hallström’s post–American Pie puerility here tells a lot about what’s happened to sex in the cinema over the past three decades.

Hallström, in fact, seems to have gone even farther back for his inspiration: Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones. The sly and sleek Ledger starts his adventures in a very Albert Finney way, pulling up his trousers and grabbing his boots as he flees discovery in an inappropriate boudoir, the bedchamber of a novitiate. Chased across the rooftops of a lushly realized 18th-century Venice by the local vice squad, he finds brief refuge in a university auditorium where "Bernardo Guardi" is scandalizing the faculty by preaching the equality of women. Nabbed and sentenced to hang for heresy and immorality, Casanova eludes his fate by promising to marry and settle down.

A snowballing of disguises, mistaken identities, near-escapes, raunchy exchanges, and broad comedy follows, all ending in a crescendo of confrontations and unmaskings at the inevitable Carnevale. Although a lot of this is trite and obvious, especially in the beginning, Hallström deserves credit just for keeping all the twists, subplots, and narrative reversals untangled. Even his crudest gags (an obese man kissing a woman on an upturned gondola) have at least two entendres (his weight and his state of arousal).

The disguises begin with the above-mentioned Guardi — it’s the nom de guerre of Francesca Bruni (a spunky Sienna Miller), a pre–Mary Wollstonecraft agitator who like Casanova is having troubles with the local Inquisition, which is now headed by the insufferable Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), brought in from Rome to bring unruly Venice to heel. Casanova can’t resist her, she plays hard to get, and the movie plays even harder to get them together.

In a sense, Casanova the film wears a disguise too, and under its mask of frivolous diversion might lie deeper issues. The Inquisition has targeted Casanova for his nonconformist libertinism, but it’s really using him as a patsy to get at his city state’s independence, a situation very similar to that in Ken Russell’s Fellini-esque The Devils. And the dizzying fluidity of false identities — in the end, no one is who he or she started out to be — touches on the existential anxiety inciting compulsive sexual behavior like the hero’s. In the charming buffoonery of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the consummate seducer and liar, the painted mask of Fellini’s vision lurks like a death’s head.

Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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