The Rise and Fall of the Great Lover (Casanova Reviewed)

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Okay, I honestly didn’t think of the innuendo involved in this blog post’s title until after I posted it.

Not to be confused with the Hollywood movie of the same name, the BBC 3 miniseries on the life of Giacomo Casanova, the great lover, will soon be aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. It is well worth watching.

Almost everyone has heard of the Great Lover, Giacomo Casanova. His name has entered the popular culture, offering this man near immortality, two-hundred and fifty years after his exploits across Europe. I may know the man a bit better than most, as I read some of his memoirs, written at the end of his life. I was researching a Doctor Who fan fiction story that never came about. There is a lot of material to mine, there. The Great Casanova rubbed shoulders with all the nobility of Europe. He was a rogue through and through, a master of get-rich schemes that included the foundation of the French national lottery. Then, of course, there are the sexual conquests so numerous, they’re almost impossible to count. It was only a matter of time before the man’s life was on film.

Casanova: “I didn’t count. Only bastards count. They were not notches on a bedpost.”

Doctor Who fans might have a little difficulty in watching this program. It was written by Russell T. Davies during the break between the first and second seasons of the Doctor Who revival. Murray Gold provides the music (as he does for both seasons of the new Doctor Who) and, most disconcertingly, it stars tenth Doctor David Tennant as the great lover himself. It looks, sounds and feels a lot like Doctor Who. The similarities between David Tennant’s performance as Casanova and the tenth Doctor (the only thing that really separates them is nudity) suggests that a lot of his personality infuses both his roles, and those unused to the idea of seeing the Doctor with sex appeal may not be able to look at the tenth Doctor the same way again.

The story starts late in Casanova’s life with Casanova at this point an embittered librarian played by Peter O’Toole. Living in a castle in Bohemia slowly being taken apart by the servants while the head of the household is away, he spends his days secluded in the library, shunned by the other servants because of his airs. Just who does this high and mighty think he is, they wonder. They’ve never heard of his exploits.

…except for a young serving girl named Edith (played by Rose Byrne). The daughter of a high-born family that lost its fortune, this struggling young woman has heard of the Great Casanova and is led by curiosity and more than a little temptation to bring him food and ask if the stories are true. Peter O’Toole balances Casanova nicely between a lecherous old man and one who has lived a long life, loved and lost. His attempts to scare Edith away rebuffed (she claims she’s not interested in sex, intending to save herself for her wedding night, but she refuses to leave), he goes on to recall the story of his life, which is when the dashing David Tennant comes into the picture.

Casanova is a charlatan, a libertine, a supremely confident individual, and especially adept in thinking on his feet, and making a living amongst a nobility in Venice that has become supremely bored with life. Just by sheer bravado, Casanova becomes a lawyer, a doctor, an astronomer, and he claws his way up the social ladder, and into many different bedrooms.

Edith: Is it all going to be like this?
Casanova: Like what?
Edith: Pornography.
Casanova: No. Pornography’s over there, second shelf on the left.

Actually, the story is about much more than pornography. Russell T. Davies keeps Casanova’s story very close to the man’s published memoirs, so far as I know, but he imbues an interesting sense of humanity and a life unfulfilled into Casanova’s story. Many of Casanova’s “conquests” submit because, surprise surprise, he actually listens to them and cares about their opinions. Along the way, Casanova meets many individuals who are struggling against the confines of their life, as imposed by their sex or their class.

This is the story of Casanova’s life. Although he is remarkably successful in making a living for himself, he sets his sights on the unattainable perfect relationship. Early in the story, he meets Henriette (Laura Fraser), a beautiful woman who herself clawed her way up from the streets of Venice, using her feminine wiles to build a life of security and comfort for herself. She loves Casanova, but ends up engaged to marry a Venetian nobleman named Grimani because he offers security that Casanova cannot.

This unachievable goal drives of a number of characters in this story, not just Casanova. Grimani himself wants the love of Henriette, and he knows he can’t get it, so he becomes Casanova’s implacable enemy, and a very good villain. Casanova spends his life running after the one thing he cannot have. Henriette becomes a tragic figure because of it. And the one character that achieves everything she sets out to achieve — the fake castrato Bellino — ends up late in life a dark figure. The series asks the question: is running after something unattainable to key to living a full life? Or is it just a recipe for a life of tragedy and bitterness?

Russell T. Davies and director Sheree Folkson maintain the integrity of Casanova’s memoirs and the history of the period, but they imbue it with a number of modern sensibilities. Tennant’s Casanova speaks at top speed with a rapier wit, using idioms that are probably inaccurate to the period, but a delight to witness nonetheless.

Angela Tosello: I find all forms of theatre vulgar.
Giacomo Casanova: Yes, absolutely, good point… Even puppet shows?

Giacomo Casanova: Do you know what ‘Casanova’ means in the original Latin?
Bellino: No.
Giacomo Casanova: It means ‘lucky bastard’.

The pictures painted of the various courts (Venice, Paris and London) are caricatures of the real thing, used to great and hilarious effect. Versaille is shown in bold, foppish colours, highlighting its crazy fun and decadence that proved to be ripe for revolution. In contrast, the court of London is staid, its courtiers dressed in shades of white, among walls that are institutional green and grey.

Casanova’s visit to Naples in the shadow of Vesuvius, is especially noteworthy, here. It’s at this point that the story turns, and Casanova realizes the darker side of his exploits. This city’s court is rendered in red and black, on the edge of destruction, and consignment to the flames.

It will be interesting to see if the Casanova miniseries survives Masterpiece Theatre uncut. While the nudity that exists is strategically hidden behind various items of furniture, there are many sexual situations that puts this story well beyond PG territory. It would be a shame to cut things, however.

This is not a strict retelling or a docudrama, despite how closely the story sticks to Casanova’s memoirs. The crew paints a stylish picture of decadent Europe, in brilliant hues, to get the story behind the story of Casanova: of people struggling against the confines of their life, and of a man who lived a full life, but who died strangely unfulfilled.


Further Reading

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