J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Casanova Variations: Malkovich Playing Valmont Playing Casanova Playing Don Giovanni

Giacomo Casanova and Don Giovanni were not the same, but it will become even easier to confuse the two after this film. It is sort of a greatest hits package, combining Casanova’s notorious memoirs with Mozart/Da Ponte arias from Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, with John Malkovich basically reprising his work from Dangerous Liaisons. He might be the most meta actor ever, because he essentially plays himself, playing Casanova. The confusion is the charm of Michael Sturminger’s adaptation of his operatic mash-up, The Casanova Variations (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Don’t let a little anachronism here and there throw you. Sturminger will freely switch back and forth between an ostensibly realistic period production and a semi-traditional opera staging, in which modern props and fourth-wall-breaking will often intrude. It is hard to get our bearings in this meta-meta film and even harder to keep them, so we cannot judge too harshly the doctor who rushes to the stage to treat the apparently fallen (but really just acting) Malkovich. The stage manager does not blame her either, but she will have to watch the rest of the first act from the wings.

Meanwhile, in Casanova’s life, Elisa von der Recke calls on the aging adventurer, supposedly with a proposal from a publisher. He doesn’t believe her for one minute, but there is no way he would ungallantly turn away a young lady. Her interest in his life story is genuine, but clearly it is of a more personal nature, rather than professional.

Variations has all the lush costuming and trappings of high culture, but its gender-bending, reality-problematizing narrative is uber-postmodern. Frankly, it is easy to lose your place in the film, because Sturminger does not throw down enough markers to clearly delineate each sphere. That can be baffling (and rather maddening), but if you just let go and roll with it, Variations will start to come together as a whole.

As you would hope and expect from a film starring Malkovich as Casanova (and as himself, playing Casanova), Variations is often quite witty. Of course, it sounds beautiful, since it cherry-picks the most passionate Mozart arias. Malkovich’s singing voice is so dubious, it becomes the subject of an extended in-joke, but fortunately for the audience, professional baritone Florian Boesch serves as his alternate-alter-ego. Miah Persson sort of serves the same function for Veronica Ferres’ von der Recke, while most of the rest of the cast consists of legit opera singers, including Kerstin Avemo and Kate Lindsey as Casanova’s former lovers and the great Barbara Hannigan as a contemporary.

Sturminger and company make opera weirdly self-referential, in surprisingly gossipy ways. Ever the meta-man, both Malkovich and Casanova send-up their own images, even coyly addressing rumors regarding the former’s sexuality. It is an oddly conceived film, but its compulsive risk-taking becomes quite exhilarating. Recommended for adventurous opera patrons, Casanova Variations releases today on VOD, from Cleopatra Entertainment.

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