Federico Fellini is one of the few directors distinctive enough to inspire an adjective (“Felliniesque”) that means something even to those too young to have experienced his work at the height of his fame. That familiarity no doubt is because his later films, at least, are so overtly stylized and outrageous that they can connect with audiences uninterested in the milieu that made such experimentation possible.
Fellini Casanova, one of his most elaborate efforts, makes no pretense to presenting a realistic portrait of the 18th century rake or his era. Instead Casanova (Donald Sutherland) is the means of entry into an oneiric, claustrophobic vision of ancien regime rot. For Fellini, Giacomo Casanova is nothing better than a poseur whose compulsions repeatedly overpower his pretensions to scientific and cultural sophistication. He exists purely to indulge himself and experiences no emotion deeper than self-deception.
No one should expect pornography, however, since the sex consists of desultory bump and grind sessions in which poor Sutherland grunts and sweats to climax in obvious discomfort. To compensate for a lack of interest in his protagonist, Fellini whoops things up with a characteristic carnival of dwarfs, giants, freaks, brutes, innocents and teases, waggling their tongues and twitching their bottoms over and over again amidst one ornate, blatantly artificial, silk-and-satin upholstered setup after another.
The results are spectacular in their way (if familiar from other Fellini films) but not especially memorable. I first saw Casanova in its theatrical release, but I was struck by how little I remembered of it. It is indicative that only one or two images sparked recognition in this film in which style is the primary attraction. Most of it is not much more visually striking than a standard period drama. Which is not to say, however, that Casanova looks like other period films. It looks like a Fellini film, but this time the “Felliniesque” gestures are a pale reminder of his most distinctive work. Only Danilo Donati’s costuming stands out, and you know a director is in trouble when the couturier provides the most interesting contributions to a film.
To be fair, with the exception of 8 1/2, even the Fellini films that have been praised by others have left me pretty cold. I can nonetheless distantly appreciate his exuberance and originality. Casanova, on the other hand, feels like it is meant to be cold, as if the director could not overcome antipathy for his subject. On the flimsy evidence he gives us, his dislike of Casanova is understandable, but is disapproval sufficient reason to make a movie? The characters in Fellini Satyricon were pretty vile too, but their antics inspired striking, often disturbing images. What is most surprising about Fellini Casanova is how dull and pointless it feels, like an academic précis of “Felliniesque” mannerisms. Perhaps Casanova’s arid carnality was too close to the director’s sensibility to rouse him to anything greater than condescending indifference.