1998, R, 115 min. Directed by Marshall Herskovitz. Starring Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt, Moira Kelly, Naomi Watts, Fred Ward, Jacqueline Bisset.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 6, 1998
When Dangerous Beauty grows up, it wants to be a Merchant/Ivory film. Too bad puberty is still such a long way off. Based on Margaret Rosenthal's biography of 16th-century Venetian courtesan and poetess Veronica Franco, director Herskovitz (thirtysomething) dives deep into Venice's fabled, watery past and comes up with a gilded trunkload of hoary romance novel clichés, disastrous casting choices, a coolly calculating score (by George Fenton), and a sullied thematic logic that's more than simply annoying, it's insulting to boot. McCormack plays Franco, who is tutored by her mother (Bisset) in the ways of the courtesan as a means of providing family support. Due to the questionable nature of the family's means and her lower station in life, she's unable to marry the man she loves -- the handsome senator Marco Venier (Sewell, of Dark City) -- and instead spends her time as a sort of kept woman of the Venetian elite. Certainly, at that time, the only way for a woman to learn of the world, to read books, and to grow intellectually and artistically according to her inclination was as a courtesan. (Your average scullery maid was forbidden to even learn how to write her name.) Once installed in the palaces of the wealthy, Franco quickly becomes everyone's favorite party girl. More than that, though -- she's learning the secrets of kings, generals, and bishops, becoming fluent in various languages and the secret machinations of the 16th-century power structure. Mankind's innate fear of strong, intelligent women and their sexuality becomes her undoing as first her one true love -- for whom she would abandon her financially rewarding lifestyle -- goes off to war. Following that, the Plague descends; then the Inquisition arrives in town to burn assorted witches and heretics, of which she is considered one. McCormack is lovely to look at; her face has a ruddy carnality that plays well to the camera, but her Franco is far too broadly drawn. Her passion for lovemaking is frequently, crudely demonstrated, as when she deep-throats a banana or leers suggestively; she's a caricature, a cartoon, Disney gone blue. Sewell is much better suited to the role of impetuous, lovable rogue (scamp, maverick, scalawag, all of the above) Venier, but Jeannine Dominy's woefully scatty script plays him the fool (and in quick succession Franco, and then us). And what in the world is Fred Ward doing here as Marco's wealthy, handicapped father? Rarely do you come across a more ludicrous casting choice. Worse, Herskovitz constantly badgers us with emotional signposts and overwhelming, obvious pathos. Cry here, laugh here, sob here, and so on. Visually, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli keeps everything in a golden haze; Dangerous Beauty resembles nothing so much as a Penthouse photo spread. Perhaps not coincidentally, I kept expecting romance novel posterboy Fabio to appear, but no such luck. “I can't believe it's not butter!” Believe it pal -- it's cheese. 100% Grade-A American.