I saw Joseph Losey’s film of Don Giovanni for the first time on a double-bill with his version of Galileo. Both are blatantly theatrical in style, although Giovanni, at least, was filmed in real locations that are treated as over-sized stages. It’s a rich-looking, often striking film, but a trial to sit through. It is not blatantly bad, just dispirited, almost as if all emotion and pleasure have deliberately been squashed and flattened in an exaggerated, unnecessary critique of Giovanni’s libertine licentiousness.
The opera compounds my ambivalence towards Mozart (I get an allergic reaction when any artist is touted as the “greatest” in his or her field) with belabored theatrical mechanics that might work on stage, but which require a great deal of tolerance on screen. Worse, Losey effectively underlines the conventions, making what is already difficult to accept downright preposterous. For example, the second act, which depends on mistaken identity contrivances, is especially trying, since the only “disguises” worn by the characters are masks, without any effort to make the situation more plausible. No doubt refusing to make the deception more convincing was a deliberate choice, but the combination of implausible scenario, strained artifice and uninteresting performers make the results a test of endurance and willingness to grant the benefit of the doubt.
Ruggero Raimondi as a rapacious lover who cannot be refused or satisfied doesn’t help matters. Perhaps he’s not meant to be convincing, but then what is he meant to be? Most of the rest of the cast are equally stalwart, more emblems of what they should be rather than examples of it. José van Dam as Leporello manages to be sympathetic in the thankless role of servant to a degenerate and Edda Moser as Donna Anna at least works up some real operatic passion.
Unfortunately, in Losey’s gloomy world, such strong emotions seem to come out of nowhere. It takes something like calculated perversity to turn the Veneto at the height of summer into a ponderously glum tour of emotional desolation. The scenery, particularly Palladio’s architectural gems that serve as backdrop to the action, ends up the film’s chief attraction. Losey was known for his close collaboration with his designers, and it’s difficult not to suspect that his chief motivation for making Giovanni was the opportunity to shoot in such jewelry box locations. (He practically admitted as much in his book length set of interviews with Michel Ciment, Conversations with Losey.) As a result, the buildings connect with the viewer more successfully than the performers.
At that first screening, I overheard a woman nearby saying to her companion “I like Amadeus more.” It’s easy enough to understand the comparison and why she preferred Amadeus. Forman’s film panders to audiences, but Losey goes to the opposite extreme, managing to make Don Giovanni into an object lesson on how to take the fun out of just about anything.