'Casanova Variations': San Sebastian Review

Casanova Variations Still - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Casanova Variations Still - H 2014

Flaccid fantasia on the lover-cum-writer shoots blanks

John Malkovich stars as the eponymous libertine in Michael Sturminger's opera-theater-cinema hybrid

"Man is free," wrote notorious lothario Giacomo Casanova in his Memoirs, "yet we must not suppose that he is at liberty to do everything he pleases." Somebody should have perhaps vouchsafed this bon mot to John Malkovich and his collaborators on The Casanova Variations, the disappointingly humdrum big-screen version of a theater-opera hybrid that played to mixed responses on the world's stages last year.

Using extracts from Mozart to counterpoint the aged Casanova's colorful saunter down a lechery-laced memory lane, the exquisitely mounted results may in visual terms hark back to Malkovich's frocked, bewigged 1988 breakthrough in Dangerous Liaisons but never break free of the curio straitjacket. Commercial prospects are dim, especially now that highfalutin urban cinemagoers in many territories can enjoy actual operas beamed live onto the screens of their local independent movie house under the lucrative guise of "alternative content," and small-screen ancillaries may prove more viable.

Casanova has long proven powerful catnip for charismatic thespians, Malkovich joining a lineage that dates back to Bela Lugosi in the silent era and includes Donald Sutherland (for Fellini in 1976), Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Heath Ledger (for Lasse Hallstrom in 2005) and — on TV, Frank Finlay (for Dennis Potter), David Tennant and Peter O'Toole. But it's Malkovich's bad luck that his take on the priapic debauchee should arrive so soon after Albert Serra's 2013 Locarno winner and firm highbrow-festival favorite The Story of My Death, which fancifully imagined an encounter between Casanova (representing 18th-century rationalism) and Count Dracula (standing for the emerging forces of romanticism).

Despite being a decidedly flawed enterprise taken in sluggish toto, Serra's low-budget affair did at least evince an intelligent, mischievous attempt to grapple with Casanova's character and legacy, and showcased a deliciously eccentric central performance from farting, belching, pomegranate-munching non-pro Vicenc Altaio. Long established as a terrific, original talent given the right material and handling, Malkovich is actually a year older than Altaio.

But the well-maintained 60-year-old's relative "youth" is a nagging distraction given that writer-director Michael Sturminger's screenplay mentions on more than one occasion that the ceaselessly hard-living Casanova we're seeing is "well over" the age of 70. The actor's slightly cumbersome, English-accented diction, meanwhile, tends to enervate rather than enliven the screenplay's aphorism-studded verbiage.

Malkovich's shortcomings as a singer are less of a problem (although one dreams of what Christopher Lee might have done with the role 20 years ago, or even Jonathan Pryce today), as the freewheeling, multi-layered staging allows him to share the role with professional baritone Florian Boesch, among others. A similar trick is employed with regard to the smolderingly intriguing Veronica Ferres as Elise Von Der Recke, whose visit to Casanova and rampant curiosity about his long-gestating autobiography forms the engine for the skimpy plot.

The latter is really just a frame upon which to hang various episodes from the roue's disgraceful past, whose unsavory nadirs include tawdry episodes of incest and rape, and which includes a delightful but too-fleeting cameo from Fanny Ardant. Making copious use of wobbly hand-held cameras in an attempt to inject some life into the inert proceedings, Sturminger (working with editor Evi Romen) cuts between a stripped-down version of Giacomo Variations at a fancy-schmancy Lisbon opera house and more straightforward sequences set in a stately home. Unobtrusively elegant production design and costumes courtesy of Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin underline the general mood of sophisticated, high-toned classiness.

A meta-fictional level is, however, awkwardly bolted on via half-hearted backstage and in-the-wings shenanigans involving Malkovich, an ardent fan (Maria Joao Bastos, saddled with thankless comic relief) and his producer pal Jessica (Tracy Ann Oberman), who's supposedly looking to turn Giacomo Variations into a movie. Jessica's mounting skepticism is good for a few cheap guffaws, especially when she unflatteringly compares the mooted project with Mamma Mia!, but Sturminger's inclusion of such hostages-to-fortune touches can't excuse or defuse the picture's fundamental deficiencies.

Production companies: Alfama, Amour Fou (in collaboration with X-Filme Creative Pool and Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion)
Cast: John Malkovich, Veronica Ferres, Kerstin Avemo, Maria Joao Bastos, Tracy Ann Oberman, Florian Boesch, Kate Lindsey, Fanny Ardant
Director: Michael Sturminger
Screenwriter: Michael Sturminger, based on The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and three operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) and Lorenzo Da Ponte (libretto)
Producers: Paulo Branco, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu, Bady Minck

Cinematographer: Andre Szankowski
Production and costume designers: Andreas Donhauser, Renate Martin
Editor: Evi Romen
Sales: Alfama Films, Paris

No MPAA rating, 119 minutes