Though hardly believable as a true story, Dangerous Beauty (Warner Brothers) mesmerizingly captures the life and struggle of poetess and courtesan Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack, Braveheart).
McCormack portrays Franco with passion and fervor. Franco has been semi-forced into the life of a 16th-century prostitute after the reality of her low status shatters her hope of marrying Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell, “Middlemarch”), her true love. After discovering courtesans are the most educated and powerful women in Venice, Franco succumbs to the profession to make the best of her caged life.
The dialogue throughout the film is Elizabethan, but it is not distracting. After the first few minutes, the language is hardly noticeable. Each character has lines so clear and actions so telling that it doesn’t matter if a viewer is unfamiliar with the style. And McCormack’s balmy English accent is highlighted beautifully with the dialect.
The costumes are extravagant and appropriate. The courtesans are dressed in bright colors and wild brocades, while the other women of Venice are dressed conservatively in drab hues. This is most noticeable when the plague breaks out – and the Inquisition sets out to destroy these women. Their colored dresses set them apart well. And one cannot help but admire the actors for enduring corsets and yards of heavy fabric when seeing them cinched into the costumes.
The producers opted to re-create Venice instead of filming in Venice itself. They rebuilt canals and ornate Venetian buildings at their studios. This was probably the cheapest and most convenient way to do it, and it works for the closer shots. However, when ships come into Venice, the computer-enhanced images are too noticeable. But that accounts for all of 20 seconds of the film.
The music, dialogue, costumes and set all contribute heavily to the film’s overall feeling. Without the beautiful shots of Franco and Venier riding through the Italian countryside accompanied by lyrical string music, their love would be harder to believe. The dark halls filled with alcohol and topless women draped with textured fabrics bring a little more reality to the culture of the courtesan. Hearing about it is one thing – seeing it is another.
Though sex is a huge part of a courtesan’s job, the film also focuses on more important things to the courtesan. She must make a client feel as though he is the only man in the world. She must find what he loves best and give it to him. The job is more one of intelligence and pleasure than one of arbitrary sex. Power is the real goal of a courtesan. Franco’s mother Elena (Justine Miceli) tells her, “Courtesans are the most educated women in Venice.” She also contended the mistress is solicited for advice more often than the man’s advisors.
That is one problem with the film. The life of a courtesan is painted to seem glamorous and safe. Only at one point near the end did Franco point out what happens to a courtesan when she is ruined. Otherwise, courtesans are rich, run the country, and get books of poetry published while other women are not allowed in the library.
Along with this, the audience has to throw out any beliefs about the sanctity of marriage. The audience is led to believe that it is acceptable for these men, including a bishop, to have sex with courtesans.
Franco’s affair is upheld as good to the very end of the movie, though he was married for half of it. If his wife was contemptible, it might have been easier to ignore. But she says, “My only desire is to be a good wife.” How can the audience ignore that?
The film also builds a little too much drama into it. The love scenes with Venier are too much to swallow. And the speeches at the Inquisition are all but completely unbelievable. But, then again, how can a piece like this be produced without too much drama? There must be some truth to it because the beginning of the film proclaims it to be a true story.
Dangerous Beauty explores the power struggle and dilemmas women went through in the 16th century. The heart of the film – demonstrating where the power really lies – is portrayed in beautiful detail. And unlike many recent films, it packs a lot into less than two hours.Dangerous Beauty opens Friday.
This article appeared in the February 26, 1998 issue of the Hatchet.