“He’s a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator,” declared Fellini by way of explaining his choice of Donald Sutherland to play the title role in his 1976
Casanova. As the 18th-century Venetian memoirist, diplomat, escape artist, spy, military man, musician, Freemason, fraudster, clergyman, convicted witch, inveterate name-dropper, and definitive loverman, Sutherland is master of a bedroom technique more vigorous than many a gym regimen. His Casanova emanates a sweetish decaying scent of venereal melancholy and late-Fellini mustiness from beneath his Fabergé egg costumery; despite his conquests, he remains utterly alone.
Needless to say, a Casanova financed by a Disney subsidiary and helmed by the director of Chocolat produces a less complicated, more tasteful creature. Instead of Sutherland’s militarized thrusts, this Casanova (Heath Ledger) dips fruit in cream and murmurs single entendres; instead of compulsions and depressions, he has a backstory. Maternal abandonment has left the poor lad in search of sublimated mommy love; his intuition for traditional values holds firm notwithstanding his youthful rumspringa of dashing promiscuity. Though his mighty sword has pierced every last vow of chastity in a local convent, he’s really a closet monogamist—he just hasn’t met the right girl.
She is Francesca (blah Sienna Miller), who pens bestselling feminist tracts under a masculine nom de plume and dons drag to gain access to the all-male university. Fran and Giac are well matched in their casual facility for assuming and disposing of names and identities; forever in debt and afoul of the church (to wit: “Casanova, the Inquisition is here looking for you”), the notcher of belts acquires one fiancée too many, leading to the inevitable Mrs. Doubtfire scene in which the Cassmaster must squire both his intendeds to a party, where he enjoys a perhaps requisite beneath-the-table servicing of Li’l Casanova. He finally reveals himself to Francesca on a blue-screen balloon trip that looks like an outtake from Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In the meantime, Lena Olin wrings her hands as Francesca’s uptight mom, Oliver Platt waddles about as Casanova’s wealthy gull, and Jeremy Irons cashes a check as the evil bishop in flattop wig festooned with red Annie curls.
Ledger’s deadpan baritone pumps wit into his tepid one-liners like collagen into a wilted starlet’s kisser, and the clumsy staging might not grate so much if the tone weren’t so self-congratulatory. Casanova‘s undaunted support for women’s education and spunky disdain for the Inquisition make Chocolat‘s homilies in defense of candy and different-ness seem positively revolutionary.