'Casanova' swaggers its way onscreen with playfulness to spare
By Jeff Latta
Coming a long way from his start directing ABBA's music videos, Lasse Hallström returns to the screen with an unexpectedly airy comedy about Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, the legendary lover played here by Heath Ledger. The premise is deceptively simple: a lifetime of sexual freedom catches up to Casanova as the film opens, and we discover that he must either depart Venice to escape prosecution or settle down to marriage within days. Casanova refuses to leave town, so marriage it is for the sociable libertine, accompanied by his equally affable sidekick, Lupo (Omid Djalili).
Casanova's plans change abruptly when he encounters the woman who is destined to become the love of his life, the strong-willed Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), a fierce beauty with secrets of her own. But convincing her of this destiny proves difficult, so Casanova must pretend to be several people in order to win this progressive damsel's heart.
A biting sense of humor runs throughout Casanova; even innocent quips are delivered with a sly tongue and a wink to the audience. The film borders on farce, stopping just short of door-slamming but wading deeply into Shakespeare territory, as when Casanova must attend the same social gathering as the escort of both Francesca and a deluded potential bride.
But the greatest influence here is clearly the screwball comedies of the '40s and '50s, where strong-willed women gave men their comeuppance but still allowed themselves to be won over in the end. Casanova himself is a familiar archetype as a man who finds--much to his, but not our, surprise--that he cannot resist a woman who is his equal.
As in Hallström's 2000 film Chocolat, the primary theme here is the exploration of sexual mores. The allegory in this film becomes a particularly timely one, as an increasingly merged (and unrealistically traditional) church and state attempt to hunt down progressive thinkers, spying on them until they have enough dirt to swoop in and make charges. But that's just fantasy of course; there's nothing like America's current social climate.
Despite the film's 18th-century setting, elements of modernity and Americanization fit easily into Casanova, as they have in several of Hallström's other films. From big things like Francesca's outlandishly progressive ideals to the small stuff of Casanova's sporty sunglasses, this film plays with time periods and our perceptions.
As in his breakthrough hit My Life as a Dog, Hallström's most obvious strength is in adding a little something extra to every one of his characters, big or small. The supporting cast members all get a hint of added depth or personalized personality quirks, as did the many eccentric folks young Ingemar encountered in the 1985 Oscar-nominated Dog. This keeps every character engaging and every scene all the more entertaining. And Casanova is nothing if not entertaining. The ads make it out to be something like a more upbeat Quills, but this film has a method all its own. The result is a breezy rumination on philosophy, life and love--a romantic comedy that utilizes modern humor and conventions together with a throwback plot structure to create a period piece with massive appeal.
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