Published March 1, 1998
Dangerous Beauty by Marshall Herskovitz bills itself as a “true story” of Venice in the 1580s, but if there is one thing this film is not, it is not true to Venice in the 1580s. The story of a courtesan and a poetess called Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) is made into an object lesson in how our ancestors can only interesting to us insofar as they were valiantly trying to be us. Veronica Franco, that is, is a feminist heroine considerably avant la lettre—and she also gets to be the only woman in prudish, old-fashioned Venice who enjoys sex with men. Talk about having the best of both worlds! She is tutored in the arts of seduction by her mother, Paola (Jacqueline Bisset), and that will be the drawing card for many men of a certain age. Some of the advice she gives is pretty good too: “You must know pleasure to give pleasure,” handsome mother tells handsome daughter. Hm. Sounds like there might be something in that.
But poor Veronica is so busy trying to be a 20th century gal four centuries before there were such things that it is hard to believe that she has the time really to enjoy pleasure. Her strenuous competition with men—particularly the rich and aristocratic Marco (Rufus Sewell) and his cousin Maffio (Oliver Platt)—in poetry, in swordplay, in brawling and drinking and swearing—is too obviously meant to prove a point to prove her point. Also, there is some inconsistency in the fact that the powers that be in Venice, including Marco, are continually blasted for their unromantic view of marriage as duty to family and state at the same time that it glories in the life of the courtesan which that view has institutionalized.
The idea here is that courtesans are supposed to be the only women in Venice who are allowed to be both sexually liberated and educated. At one point Veronica offers a demonstration of both her sexual liberation and her education before an outrageously contrived gathering of Venetian wives. First she gives an explanation of the geopolitics of the Turkish war (“Without Cyprus, we lose control of the Eastern Mediterranean,” she sagely observes) and a demonstration, with banana, of how to keep their husbands at home. They are disgusted by her. Shortly afterwards, Marco’s respectable sister Beatrice (Moira Kelly), having made a prudent marriage, asks her old friend Veronica to take her daughter, when she is old enough, and teach her to be a courtesan, since she so envies her this “freedom” and education.
It is here that the film offers its most hilariously stupid line, when Beatrice says that she doesn’t want the little girl to grow up to “rue the day she was born a girl and gave herself to family and country. No biblical hell,” she continues, “could ever be worse than a state of perpetual inconsequence.” Leave aside the fact that some would argue that hell is precisely “a state of perpetual inconsequence” but that living for family and country hardly describes that state, we can’t help thinking that she ought to try a “biblical hell” before she pronounces so confidently about what is worse than it.
There is nothing else quite so idiotic as that, but plenty that comes close, including Jeroen Krabbe as Marco’s father thrusting various young people together and saying “For Venice!” So insistent is the film about denying any purpose to marriage but pleasure and self fulfilment that it even tries to make Marco’s poor wife into a dolt for saying that her only desire in the world is to give him strong sons and to be a good wife to him. By this point you will have more than got the message this tedious film has to teach and can skip the ridiculous court of the Inquisition at the end which proposes to take the excuse of the plague to burn the lovely Veronica as a witch.
Does it succeed? If you don’t know already, by all means watch. Some men are just so threatened by female sexuality! Or intelligence! Or both! But herewith a footnote to this celebration of courtesans because (among other reasons) they were “the most educated women in the world.” I found it particularly piquant that I saw it on the very day when it was reported in the national press that Americans are among the least educated people in the world. Obviously the value we put on education is rather different if it is not, as it is here, also the ticket to a promiscuous sex life.