When you seduce as many women as Giacomo Casanova did, and when you publish a 12-volume memoir in French about your antics, you sort of have to expect they're going to make movies about you.
In the delightful La Nuit de Varennes, set during the French revolution, Marcello Mastroianni played the aging Casanova (1725-1798) with a painted-faced gaiety and assurance that approached the sublime. Casanova, directed by Lasse Hallström, stars Heath Ledger as a younger incarnation of the great seducer when he still lived in his native Italy, where the Pope of Rome rules the roost (although in randy Venice, the cocks crow freely), and where a female virgin is about as hard to find as an honest nobleman.
This playful, apocryphal tale, co-written (with Kimberly Simi) by the playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty), begins with Casanova nailing a nun ("she was no novice") and escaping execution when the Doge grants him clemency if he'll marry within three days. So he betroths himself to a horny lass who's the unrequited love object of a horny lad whose feminist sister, Francesca (Sienna Miller), publishes fiery pseudonymous tracts. She's promised to a porcine lard merchant (Oliver Platt) she's never met, and her widowed mother (Lena Olin) begs her to go through with the wedding to re-erect the family's flaccid finances.
Meanwhile, a prickly bishop (Jeremy Irons) wants Casanova's head. To save himself, Casanova concocts a scam of deceptions and disguises through which everyone (except the bishop) finally gets who and what he and she wants, but only with the help of Francesca, who dons drag at Casanova's trial to rescue his pound of flesh.
There's rather too much going on in Casanova, and at the same time, not quite enough. It's a lightly weighted farce, with winnowing modern themes about love and sex, always amusing but hardly ribald, and downright funny only in spurts. (Perhaps that's appropriate, at least from the male perspective.) Except for the old blowjob-under-the-table routine, Hatcher never stoops to conquer: His gently sophisticated quips -- of which we could use more -- come in both the verbal and visual variety, and only once does he nakedly wink at the 21st century.
The production is handsomely mounted, with gorgeous money shots all over glittering Venice, plus a costumed ball with revelers dressed in their finest party hats (I mean wigs, of course -- and, one can imagine, the occasional well-trimmed merkin). The actors play it smartly, letting us join their fun, and as Casanova, Ledger has ample charm and beauty, if none of Mastroianni's wisdom and grace.
You don't expect a surprise climax from such an oft-told tale, and yet, Hatcher manages one: Turns out "Casanova" is as much a state of mind as it is a state of being. Of course, Casanova certainly did everything and everyone whom he claims to have done. But -- and I desperately hope this is true -- he apparently wasn't the only one who did it.