AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 7TH SEPTEMBER, from MR BONGO
RUNNING TIME: 155 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Giacomo Casanova is a a poet, philosopher, mathematician, author and adventurer . However, he also engages in constant seductions of women, and it’s this that people only seem to be interested in, ignoring his other talents for which he would prefer to be recognised. Now, he lives in Venice, seems to be a bit ‘past it’ and has trouble living up to his reputation. Asked to deflower a fake nun for the pleasure of a rich voyeur on a small island, Casanova is then arrested as soon as he returns to the mainland and thrown into prison. He escapes, but is now in exile and seems doomed to wonder through the cities of 18th century Europe, having joyless encounter after joyless encounter and being exploited by others….
Director Federico Fellini considered his film about “the world’s greatest lover” to be his best picture and was devastated when it received a poor reception from both critics and audiences in 1976. I’ve not seen all of the great filmmaker’s efforts, but I’ve seen what seem to be generally considered his key films, and I think it’s possible that the man was right. Fellini’s Casanova, which seems to be much more widely regarded these days, is a quite stunning piece of work which manages to be both a clever and penetrating examination of a myth and a highly stylised piece of art which really takes the viewer on a weird and wonderful journey. It’s not the most easy of films to get into – I was in the mood for a very slow piece where scenes are often allowed to go on forever – and probably not the first film to see if you’re new to Fellini. In a way, you have to have seen some of his earlier work to fully “get” this one, because it seems to partly revisit much of it, especially Le Dolce Vita, with a cynicism and a bleakness which often tends to come when a filmmaker gets older. Amongst many other things, Fellini’s films often tell us that “life is a carnival” , but by 1976 Fellini didn’t feel this was something worth celebrating anymore.
Fellini was actually inspired to make this film when he heard a story in the news in which two Roman rich kids murdered a woman and, while on their way to dispose of the body, stopped off at a friend’s party to have a good time. Producer Dino De Laurentiis saw Robert Redford in the role of Casanova but Fellini refused to cast him. De Laurentiis bowed out of the project and Fellini signed a new contract with producer Alberto Grimaldi, who let Fellini cast whoever he wanted, Donald Sutherland then coming on board. Seventy reels of film were stolen when thieves broke into the Technicolor labs in Rome. They were apparently after the already controversial Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, but also took whatever else they could get their hands on. Some of Fellini’s film had to be reshot including the elaborate and expensive Venice carnival scene, while a sequence in which Casanova encounters a woman played by Barbara Steele had to be dropped. The script evolved during filming, Fellini’s dislike of the character of Casanova gradually changing to a more sympathetic view, a view which eventually gave him the film’s ending. It was shot entirely in the studio, Fellini’s filmmaking style having become much more stylised and deliberately artificial in look. It wasn’t a style that was well received on this instance, though in a way these later Fellini’s, especially this one, don’t date in the way his earlier ones, which tend to really show when they were made, can’t help but do.
The opening scenes of Fellini’s Casanova really blew me away but make no concessions for the casual viewer, partly because he or she is often being asked to think about is being, often symbolically, presented. A lengthy shot of indistinct reflections in a lake, over which rather edgy music from Nino Rota plays [no jaunty themes here!], becomes a lavish Venice carnival with fireworks and an amazing array of dazzling and inventive costumes, though there’s something disturbing about some of them, especially the masks. A man is lowered into the water to drown, then a gigantic bust tries to rise from the lake but then sinks back into it. Now we finally cut to Casanova, and he’s made his way across some water to a tiny island. The sea doesn’t at all look real and was actually made from plastic bags, but it possibly emphasises the plasticity of Casanova’s life and journey. I personally love it when filmmakers totally depart from realism like this [though it’s not for everyone], and I was reminded, and not for the first time whilst watching this film, that Fellini’s films were often inspired by his dreams. Anyway, Casanova is soon embroiled in a sexual escapade, having received a letter from a woman to meet her so he can take away her virginity, but being now told that the ‘Ambassador’ is going to watch through holes in the floor. The sex is done in a humorous fashion and Casanova, as he does throughout the film, seems to rely solely on the missionary position, something which the Ambassador after comments on. The woman does seem to leave satisfied, but maybe that’s due to more to Casanova’s reputation then his technique?
The rest of the film sees Casanova go from country to country, from strange sexual situation to strange sexual situation, but mechanically [small wonder that he tends to look bored during sex and/or seem like he’s thinking about something or someone else?] and, every now and again, falling genuinely in love, but always having that love being taken from him. This Casanova has to constantly fulfil his basest urges, and is probably using sex to ward off death, but actually really yearns for love. One of Sutherland’s most touching scenes has him watch one of his loves dance but, being unable to bear it, he ends up in the garden crying. Of course Casanova also wants to be recognised and appreciated for his other talents but it hardly ever seems to happen. All folk want to do is use him. I didn’t expect this, but this is a really sad film, really, beneath all the glitter and posturing of Fellini’s approach. He has Casanova have to make love to an old woman who wishes to transform her soul into that of a man’s through ritualistic intercourse with him, and engage in a bet over how many orgasms he can have in one hour [a scene which is both very funny and very sad], but he also gives a simple final scene involving a beach, Casanova, and a statue which is one of the moving and beautiful endings to a film I’ve seen in ages.
Though there is a lot of sex in the film, it’s deliberately silly and not at all erotic. It’s often accompanied by a jarring, electronic-sounding tune played by a musical box owl. While not quite as fantastical as Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Casanova is still not a film that takes place in any kind of reality. The sets don’t look very real nor very accurate. London seems to consist of virtually nothing but fog and rain. Interiors tend to be far more detailed than exteriors, which are often minimalist. We’re given strange, even pointless diversions like a group of people going into the mouth of a model whale which contains sexual drawings inside it. One of my favourite moments has lots of chandeliers being lowered on to the floor of a theatre where a play has just been performed. Why is this dwelled upon? Who knows, but it’s lovely to watch as well as a little poignant. Meanwhile the veering from Ken Russell-style histrionic insanity to a more leisurely, studied Barry Lyndon-style approach does occasionally make for a somewhat uneven film, but the way it subverts what is supposedly the epitome of male endeavour and virility and instead presents us with emptiness, loss, misery, fakery and impotence in more than one way is brave and clever. In a way, Fellini was his own worst enemy with this film. If it wasn’t so odd and over the top, I reckon it would have been more recognised for its wit and its intelligence, but then it wouldn’t have been so unique, though of course it still fits in with much of Fellini’s work in which the main protagonist is our guide through a phantasmagorical world which is a twisted but also very true reflection of the world in which he lived in, and a reflection that still rings true today.
One of the things which I initially found hard to get my head round was the way Fellini decided to make Sutherland grotesque, with fake chin, fake nose, his eyebrows heightened and the front of his scalp shaven away so that his features sit perfectly in the centre of his face! However, after a while, I realised that it was in perfect tune with the overall vision of the film, along with his rather odd performance, which often seems tired – something which is, of course, the point, though we’re constantly drawn away from it by something else going on in the background or on the other side of the frame. Fellini’s Casanova possibly shouldn’t work at all. It’s disjointed, doesn’t always make sense, and has some scenes which either don’t quite fit or could have just been cut. There are times when the point is hard to discern. Characters often look and act strange. It probably couldn’t even get made today [oh the 70’s!]. However, it also seems to me to show an individualist artist at the peak of his powers. Exquisite, bonkers and like nothing in cinemas today, it should be treasured.
Mr. Bongo’s Region ‘B’ Blu-ray sadly doesn’t contain any special features – a French Blu-ray and some older DVD releases contain some documentaries – but the film does look truly excellent with sharp clarity and depth, and exactly the right level of grain. I switched several times between the English and Italian language tracks. Though you hear Sutherland’s voice in the English track, for me the Italian track flows better, and the English subtitles have the words to some songs which are not dubbed in the English language version!