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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: Dangerous Beauty (1998)

* * * 1/2

Director: Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt

I have long harbored an affection for the under seen, under appreciated Dangerous Beauty. I am well aware of its weaknesses but overall I find the film rather irresistible. I think it comes down to a couple of things: a) I love a lush, well-rendered period piece; b) the curiosity factor that inevitably arises when you think about the fact that star Catherine McCormack's career never really took off (and why not? She's a terrific actress) while supporting player Naomi Watts was just three years away from her game changing performance in Mulholland Drive; and c) and the film's strange but totally workable mix of gratuitous nudity and overt feminism.

Loosely (very) based on a true story, the film is set in 16th century Venice and centers on Veronica Franco (McCormack), a poet and courtesan. In love with Marco (Rufus Sewell), her best friend's (Moira Kelly) brother, but unable to be with him because his social standing is so much higher than her own, Veronica reluctantly enters into the sex trade with the encouragement of her mother (Jacqueline Bisset). Her mother, who was once herself a celebrated courtesan, reasons that it would be better for Veronica to take advantage of the freedom and independence offered to courtesans rather than make an unhappy marriage with a man of her own station, and it doesn't take Veronica long to come around to her mother's way of thinking, especially once she discovers that she can parlay the work into getting her poetry published. It isn't long before she's as famous for her intellect and verses as she is for her sexual prowess.

Though she has many clients, she refuses Marco, who has since made a desired match with Giulia (Naomi Watts), a woman he cannot relate to on any level. Eventually Veronica and Marco embark on an affair and she gives up prostitution in order to live exclusively as his mistress, though she refuses to be economically supported by him. For a time they live together away from Venice, isolated and happy, but it isn't long before the outside world begins to intrude on their idyll. Venice is about to go to war, which means that Marco's services will be called upon. To go to war, Venice will need the support of France's army and in exchange King Henry (Jake Weber) wants the services of Venice's best courtesan, which means that Veronica's services will be called upon as well. To make things worse, while the city's most powerful men are away fighting, the Inquisition comes to town and Marco's cousin (Oliver Platt), whose advances Veronica had once spurned, puts her directly in the tribunal's sights.

The film spends a lot of time analyzing and discussing the impossible position of women in this particular time and place. Women's education consists pretty much entirely of knowing how to be a submissive wife and their value is derived from being able to make a good marriage and bear children to carry on their husbands' legacies. The rules are different, however, for women existing outside of proper society and the thing that finally sways Veronica is the promise of access to the library; "good women" aren't supposed to read because by doing so they might gain unladylike knowledge, but courtesans, aside from the fact that they aren't considered ladylike anyway because of their occupation, are expected to be well read so that they can converse freely with their patrons and fully appreciate the thoughts and opinions of the men in their lives. The courtesans are unencumbered by typical social conventions, though the film harbors no illusions that that ultimately makes their lives easier. "My cage seems bigger," Veronica advises a friend, "but it is still a cage." Veronica's life is just as difficult and her position just as tenuous as other women, the difficulties just take a different shape and existing outside of the rules of society also, of course, means existing outside whatever protections society might offer. Veronica has gained certain privileges but she has gained them in exchange for rights she would have had if she had married and become a legitimate/recognized part of society.

Interestingly, and to the film's credit, it views the rigid rules which define "acceptable" womanhood as disenfranchising to men as well as to women. Giulia may be a proper society woman but it's her lack of intellect as much as her sexual frigidity that drives Marco to the company of courtesans. He literally cannot talk to her because she's been raised to believe that she shouldn't know anything or have an opinion about anything. She's an absent presence and he has married an empty symbol. It's a recipe for dissatisfaction and the film makes a solid argument that equality of the sexes enriches the quality of life for everyone, not just women.

Though it occasionally veers towards the melodramatic, particularly in its final act, Dangerous Beauty is for the most part a well written and well realized film. It finds a nice balance between the witty comedy of the first act, the sweeping romance of the second, and the drama and tragedy of the third. At the centre of it all is a great performance by McCormack, who absolutely should have become a big star on the strength of this film. Underrated hardly seems like a strong enough word for this entire endeavour.

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