The number of films about Giacomo Casanova is legion, which makes the question “why another one?” especially relevant. What insight can be found to kindle enough interest to pour reportedly more than $7.5 million into a retelling of the great diarist’s life? Given Benoît Jacquot’s success with his earlier costume drama “Farewell, My Queen,” based on Chantal Thomas’ novel, perhaps he thought a new angle could be found together with Thomas, this time credited as main scriptwriter. How odd then that their vision imagines a world of predatory hormonally-charged females all throwing themselves at a lackluster, aging roué who shows more gusto wolfing down food than rutting around skirts.
Is this the Casanova for the early 21st century? A man famed among peers for his charisma and broad intelligence, companion of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, reduced to a lovesick sad-sack pining after a capricious young prostitute whose physical attributes can’t compensate for her demonstrable lack of charm? Jacquot and Thomas dispense with the kind of brilliancy of Alexandre Volkoff’s unsurpassed 1927 “Casanova,” ignore the Freudian phantasmagoric interiority of “Fellini’s Casanova,” and give us a version in which all women are oversexed and the great man himself, as incarnated by Vincent Lindon, is as dulled as an overused guillotine blade. Though only getting U.S. distribution now, just as Jacquot’s latest, “Suzanna Andler” has its European release, “Casanova, Last Love” barely made an impression following its French rollout in March 2019, when it grossed under $500,000.
The film gets off to a very hoary start in Bohemia, when the aged and infirm Casanova is visited by his employer’s attractive niece, who coaxes him into telling her the story of the one great love of his life. Jump back 30 years to 1763 and he’s in London, where the open sexual and defecatory antics of the English unsettle the more reserved Italian. He’s uninterested in the city’s public harlots, but the aristocratic nymphomaniacs — or those who assume noble airs — provide him with temporary amusement when he’s not gorging himself on rich repasts. He’s pleased to find his past lover, the opera singer Madame Cornelys (Valeria Golino), whose enduring desire is cinematically trumpeted by the camera moving in on her expressive face. Golino and her role are wasted, dropped without explanation and merely adding financial irresponsibility to the script’s damning catalog of womanhood.
Then Casanova meets (or re-meets) Marianne, known as La Charpillon (Stacy Martin), a young prostitute with entrée to upper class circles, and he’s smitten by her teasing ways. She’s the classic unattainable fantasy whore, the kind who leads a man to think he’ll have his way with her but then withholds the goods. Capricious, moody and clearly holding out for a larger chunk of change than her average client offers, La Charpillon has Casanova falling so hard for her displayed but not bestowed attractions that he loses his appetite, allowing her and her pimp mother (Anna Cottis) to lead him on a merry dance. This is Casanova’s one true love, the one that will drive him to the brink of suicide and haunt his thoughts decades later as he writes his memoirs.
There’s something deeply, troublingly bourgeois about the need to identify one true love in Casanova’s life, as if ascribing emotional monogamy to the famed ladies’ man gives his sensuous pleasure-filled life more legitimacy or meaning. While the diarist does indeed write about his mental torments where Charpillon is concerned, it could be argued that his turmoil stemmed less from true love and more because her manipulations bested him, leaving him embittered rather than bereft. Whatever the truth, there’s nothing in Jacquot’s vision of Charpillon to inspire devotion.
There have been other unlikely Casanovas, yet the best of them conveyed not just the man’s charm but a depth of intelligence. Lindon’s downturned eyes have always exuded a world-weariness that fits with his characters, but there’s no spark here, no understanding of the man’s aura: His Casanova is just an unremarkable though well-placed man with a very bad wig vanquished by a cunning wench. It makes one long for Marcello Mastroianni’s knowingly philosophical Casanova in “That Night in Varennes.”
Unlike “Farewell, My Queen,” here the director ensures the 18th-century splendor is shown off to great advantage, using various chateaux as well as Hever Castle (for a disappointingly underwhelming scene in its famed maze) to privilege a sense of refinement. Christophe Beaucarne’s camera avoids plodding stateliness but it also conveys little apart from the beauty of the locations and Pascaline Chavanne’s attractive costumes.