The veteran French filmmaker Benoît Jacquot is one of the most inconsistent directors of the time. His best films are quite simply among the most distinctive of his era, and what marks them is the evident intensity of his collaborations with strong actresses such as Isabelle Huppert, in “Villa Amalia” (they’ve worked together on five other films), and Catherine Deneuve, in “Princess Marie.” Jacquot thrives on their strength—Huppert and Deneuve seem to wrest the direction away from him, and the struggle, however amicable, adds tone and tension to his images and his dramas, not least because control is his principal subject. In his new film, “Casanova, Last Love,” which opens Wednesday in theatres, Jacquot, who is seventy-four, stands his artistic practice on its head in order to consider it retrospectively. It’s a classic “late film,” one that, with the contemplative distance of experience, approaches his deepest concerns with apparent simplicity. Here, the tensions that had virtually scored and striated his best earlier films now rage beneath the surface no less intensely, and add far-reaching ironies to a familiar tale.
“Casanova, Last Love” is the story of a famously controlling man whose loss of control, once, decades earlier, haunts him into his old age, as does the woman who caused him to lose it. In 1793, the sixty-eight-year-old Giacomo Casanova (played by Vincent Lindon) has found a safe harbor, after a lifetime of wandering, as a librarian in a nobleman’s castle in Bohemia, where he’s working on his memoirs. Living in isolation, he’s befriended by his employer’s niece, Cécile (Julia Roy), a young woman who gets him to talk—not about the sexual conquests with which, owing to his memoirs, his name is synonymous, but about a woman he loved and lost. It’s a tale set in 1763, in London, which is shown in flashbacks that occupy most of the film.
Casanova arrives there, fleeing scandal, and, soon after, is welcomed in aristocratic company. Men in his circle recommend and offer women to him as if ordering them à la carte. But one woman in particular piques his attention—Marianne de Charpillon (Stacy Martin), whom he first sees when she’s among other women soliciting men for sex in an elegant public garden, and first meets when calling on an aristocratic swindler whose lover she turns out to be.
Marianne, called La Charpillon, greets him in a nightgown, lures and arouses him, and makes plain to him from the start the transactional aspect of her seductions. Casanova had already been warned by his friend, Lord Pembroke (Christian Erickson), about her—when he’d paid her for sex, she’d taken his money up front and run off. But, rather than asking Casanova for money, La Charpillon—knowing that Casanova dabbles in alchemy—seeks his investment in an elixir that her Aunt Anna (Hayley Carmichael) hopes to sell. He pursues her; she teases and provokes him, and introduces him to her mother (Anna Cottis), who is in effect her pimp. Casanova doesn’t want to buy La Charpillon’s services, though; he wants to court her, and she—knowing full well that she’s considered an unfit match for him in the eyes of society—sets the terms of their courtship and uses the formalities to tempt and torment Casanova all the more.
Jacquot, who wrote the film with Jérôme Beaujour and Chantal Thomas, presents the eighteenth-century costume drama in modern tones. The dialogue is terse, aphoristic, cutting, and delivered frankly, plainly, with little artifice or mannerism. His visual schema similarly is brusquely candid, with a varied repertory of handheld shots and a roving camera and fixed-focus images that all largely stay at a reserved, pensive distance from the characters. He films Martin differently from the way that he approaches Deneuve and Huppert. She isn’t as overtly forceful as they are, but she displays the distinctive quality of negative energy, invoking the power of deferral, deflection, refusal with merely a steadfast gaze or an immobile pose of the head. Jacquot uses closeups sparingly, and the one jolting, screen-piercing one—a remarkable shot from Casanova’s point of view—involves (avoiding spoilers) a distinctive and memorable object. Here, the director transforms the question of control into one of power—who has it, how it’s obtained and used or abused—which is also a matter of the power of memory, as Casanova summons his unabated sense of loss at thirty years’ distance, and the memories that, in turn, such an object and other details were likely to arouse.
Casanova’s elegant manners and worldly wisdom are focussed solely on his pleasures—whether those of sex or of the written recollection of his conquests—and the predatory depravity that they depend on emerges in the film with a similar simplicity and clarity. With minimal means, Jacquot evokes a society of narrow norms, in which privilege (as of rank, wealth, and gender) left vast margins for their violation, and in which depredations are rendered unmentionable and therefore unacknowledged and unredressed. La Charpillon recognizes that the pathological social order leaves her little recourse beside the sexual gamesmanship that she deftly and daringly plies. She makes fierce and grim, crafty and dangerous efforts to wrest an element of power in a society that leaves women little of it, that offers no institutional support or political protection and little voice in the cultural realm—even as its aesthetic and its history are dominated by their largely silent presence. (A major subplot involves a singer called La Cornelys, played by Valeria Golino, whose struggles to support herself independently lead to calamity—and the wreckage comes painfully to the fore in the course of an exquisite, delicately patterned dance at a grand ball that she throws.)
La Charpillon’s voice, here, is heard and her action seen solely through the lens of Casanova’s own storytelling, and it’s entirely unclear whether he at all hears what she’s saying, understands what she’s doing. Jacquot isn’t doing anything so facile as criticizing past mores to praise our own, though the sense of progress is unmistakable. Instead, he looks at the edifice of culture, the literary heritage, the myths of art, and goes beneath the surfaces, to the characters silenced within them, the worlds that they conceal, and, implicitly, to those concealed in the works of the present—the current iniquities hidden in plain sight.
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