The movie that arrives in theaters today under the title “Dangerous Beauty” has been on and off Warner Bros.’ release schedule for nearly a year, having tested and rejected such names as “Courtesan,” “The Honest Courtesan,” “Indiscretion” and “Venice.” None of the titles smacks of brilliance, but the studio’s confusion is at least understandable. The movie, both blessed and cursed with inspiration, defies simple description.
Based on the biography of a 16th century Venice courtesan named Veronica Franco, “Dangerous Beauty” is all of the following: a “Tom Jones"-styled period sex romp; a bordello version of “Romeo and Juliet” set against war, plague, political collapse and the Inquisition; a costume drama; a peep show; a heretical argument for guiltless passion over church doctrine; and a rousing call for women’s lib from the Joan of Arc of post-medieval call girls.
No small trick that last one. Director Marshall Herskovitz, co-creator of TV’s “thirtysomething,” and screenwriter Jeannine Dominy have found a modern feminist role model in the world’s oldest profession. Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) is a commoner who, having had her heart broken by a man whose social station prevents their marriage, adopts her mother’s former profession of courtesan--prostitute to the court--and punishes him by denying him the sexual favors enjoyed by his peers.
This is sweet revenge indeed for Veronica, who discovers she has both an aptitude and an appetite for the calling. After going through rigorous training in manners and the art of passive seduction, and losing her virginity on her first night on the job, Veronica awakes with a look of radiant satisfaction, and coos to her proud mom (Jacqueline Bisset), “Who’s next?”
The answer is, just about everyone in a position of power in Venice, from military leaders to the Catholic bishop--everyone, that is, except heartsick Senator Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell), with whom she’s still in love. Will she follow her mother’s advice and keep her distance from Marco, for to love a man is to be under his power, or will her heart carry the day? And tell us again, what makes her a proto-feminist?
According to the movie, and the film’s production notes, courtesans of the period were the only sophisticated, educated and liberated women in Venice. All others were skullery maids and aristocratic breed mares. Courtesans were allowed to read, to wear makeup, quote verse, ridicule men and ride in the annual gondola race (albeit with their breasts out). All things being relative, what a life!
Oddly, it’s the bawdy silliness of “Dangerous Beauty,” and its jaw-dropping presumptions of Veronica’s liberated lifestyle, that makes the film occasionally entertaining. But it’s a movie without a consistent tone or creative vision. A scene of delirious slapstick, a sword fight between Veronica and her rival court poet Maffio (Oliver Platt), leads directly to the plot’s two most dramatic turning points: Marco’s rescue of Veronica refires their romance; and Maffio’s public humiliation causes him to make up with the church and to look for revenge as an Inquisition prosecutor trying Veronica for witchcraft.
Some of “Dangerous Beauty” is funny because it’s meant to be. Veronica’s indoctrination as a courtesan by her mother, particularly a scene where Mom uses a nude Adonis to demonstrate man’s involuntary sexual reflex, is a hoot. Some of it is funny because it is so earnestly preposterous, a condition that prevails throughout the long Inquisition sequence, which features a show-stopping pro-passion, anti-guilt speech that would have had the real Veronica’s head rolling before she got the first sentence out.
McCormack, who could be Robin Wright Penn’s twin sister, does an able job in a role than combines Madonna, whore, tomboy, poet, intellectual, concubine, militant and martyr. But Herskovitz and Dominy are so determined to make her, more than anything else, the spokesperson for the modern woman--Gloria Steinem, in a previous life--that her performance implodes from the pressure.
Sewell, as the sad-eyed Latin lover, is an amiably heroic figure, and Bisset, mocking herself as an aging beauty, creates the most steadily honest character in the film. Platt, a fine comedy actor, is badly miscast as the self-loathing Maffio, and Fred Ward looks out of time, out of place, as Domenico, the syphilitic patriarch of the Venier clan.
* MPAA rating: R, for some scenes of strong sexuality, and for nudity and language. Times guidelines: Bare breasts and a guiltless bed-for-pay-and-power message make things too complicated for young audiences.
Catherine McCormack: Veronica Franco
Rufus Sewell: Marco Venier
Oliver Platt: Maffio Venier
Moira Kelly: Beatrice Venier
Naomi Watts: Giulia De Lezze
Fred Ward: Domenico Venier
Jacqueline Bisset: Paola Franco
Warner Bros. and Regency Enterprises present an Arnon Milchan/Bedford Falls production of a Marshall Herskovitz film. Directed by Marshall Herskovitz. Produced by Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, Arnon Milchan and Sarah Caplan. Written by Jeannine Dominy. Based on the biography “The Honest Courtesan” by Margaret Rosenthal. Executive producers Michael Nathanson, Stephen Randall. Director of photography, Bojan Bazelli. Production designer Norman Garwood. Edited by Steven Rosenblum and Arthur Coburn. Costume designer, Gabriella Pescucci. Music by George Fenton. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
* Playing at the Beverly Connection, La Cienega at Beverly Boulevard, (310) 659-5911; AMC Century 14, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 553-4291; Edwards Newport Cinemas, 300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, (714) 644-0760.