Film Reviews

Venus Envy

Dangerous Beauty presents a sixteenth-century Venice filled with statesmen who hop from bed to bed without fear of "bimbo eruptions." That's because the courtesans aren't bimbos, and they aren't hidden: Everyone from the admiralty to the bishopric patronizes them. Having developed their minds along with their erotic skills, they're boon companions as well as bedmates. They have far more intellectual freedom than noble wives (whose education is rudimentary) and greater opportunities to perform services for the state.

In one of this movie's many climaxes, the heroine lays down her ... well, actually, she just lays down to protect her city-state from the Turkish fleet. Veronica Franco is her name, and her character is based on a real-life poet-courtesan. In the film she realizes that France's King Henry III will add his battleships to Venice's -- and help ward off Turkey -- only if she pleases him. In the movie's factual source book, The Honest Courtesan, biographer Margaret F. Rosenthal reports that Henry III was known for his "bizarre sexual proclivities"; the film's Veronica (Catherine McCormack) discerns his kinks and scores the boats. Over the course of the film, this sexual savior proves to be a versifying champ to boot, and as good at mimicking fellatio with a banana as Phoebe Cates was with a carrot in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But Veronica is not satisfied. She just wants to be loved.

Director Marshall Herskovitz takes fascinating material -- Rosenthal is a professor of Italian at the University of Southern California -- and turns it into camp. This whole production is benign but ludicrous -- a swashbuckling fantasy of Franco's life in which every actual incident becomes a piece of heroine worship. For example, Veronica did bed Henry III. But the biography doesn't say that the fate of Venice hung in the balance; at the time, Henry was just the king of Poland and had stopped in Venice en route to assuming the kingship of France. Where Rosenthal's portrait homes in on Franco's intellectual dexterity and rigor, Jeannine Dominy's script paints her primarily as a sentimentalist.

Unlike the historical Franco, who had a brief, youthful marriage to a man who was probably a doctor, the movie's Veronica dreams of wedding the dashing Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell); unfortunately he needs to make a wealthier match for the good of his family and his city-state. So Veronica agrees to let her mother (Jacqueline Bisset), a former courtesan herself, lead her through a curriculum that includes Italian literature, Introduction to High Heels, and Penis 101. She soon wins a place under the sheets with Venice's best and brightest. It's the only way Veronica can support her family and plot an alternate route to Marco. If she can't be his wife, she'll eventually be his mistress.

Herskovitz illustrates Franco's florid trysts with the usual gauzy scrambled legs and torsos. The erotics of this film are all veneer -- and to add confusion to mush, the story is all Veniers. Veronica allies herself with Marco's powerful uncle Domenico Venier (Fred Ward), and rouses the desire, jealousy, and enmity of Marco's cousin Maffio Venier (Oliver Platt). After Veronica humiliates Maffio in a verbal and physical duel, he transforms himself from wastrel poet to Inquisition scourge, and accuses Veronica and her fellow courtesans of breeding licentiousness and the plague.

The director strews the movie with splashy vignettes that have all the clamor and authority of a high school halftime pageant, including a floating parade of courtesans and a naval battle scene that comes and goes in a puff of cannon smoke. But none compares in pitiable hilarity to his rendition of a trial by Inquisition. With Veronica's life on the line, Marco shames her high-placed johns into standing tall and admitting they've been her "accomplices." The scene cries out for the Mel Brooks of 1981's History of the World -- Part I; with Brooks at the helm, their postures wouldn't have been the only erect thing about them.

One working title for the film was Venice. The script makes all too clear that while male Venetians revered their republic as a paragon of liberality and justice, they restricted their wives to church or child care and alternated between celebrating and pillorying their whores. As Rosenthal writes, Veronica Franco was "aware that to be a woman citizen in a city that characterized itself as a 'donzella immaculata' (immaculate maiden) was problematic. Such a feminization of the city's myths of immaculate origins, and the exaltation of Venice as an icon of adoration, arguably restricted women's power by placing them under the control and definitions of an all-embracing patriarchal, patrician republic."

Veronica's near-fatal conflict with Maffio Venier epitomizes the risks a woman took when jockeying with male poets for patronage. In Rosenthal's account there's a catch: Courtesans who achieved financial independence and intellectual standing infuriated men. "This fact," Rosenthal observes, "is precisely what left the upwardly mobile courtesan especially vulnerable to the political and legal authority of men who vied at times with her for public recognition."

Sadly, the filmmakers dramatize this sort of high intrigue with the equivalent of sneers and spats. Are they clueless? No -- toneless. Their movie is as eclectic and uncertain as a Disney would-be classic such as 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To be fair to Disney, Esmeralda in Hunchback was sexier. Whether she's horseback riding cowgirl-style with Marco or bewitching a garden party of aristocrats, McCormack's Veronica is far too wholesome and outdoorsy. And after seeing Rufus Sewell parody the male animal in 1995's Cold Comfort Farm, it's doubly disappointing to watch him try to be a hot-eyed hunk. Of course, it's hard to imagine actors who could have survived this mishmash. Act One is like a medieval Gigi, sans wit and song; Act Two is like a doggerel feminist version of Cyrano de Bergerac; Act Three is like The Crucible with a happy ending.

Dangerous Beauty.
Directed by Marshall Herskovitz. Written by Jeannine Dominy, from the biography The Honest Courtesan, by Margaret F. Rosenthal. Starring Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt, Fred Ward, and Jacqueline Bisset.

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Michael Sragow