Old Europe’s Culture Wars

“Casanova” is a subversive symbol in today’s censorious environment. Defending the promiscuity of a notorious libertine is widely viewed as desperate and wrongheaded. What possible meritorious arguments could be advanced about a roué who discarded his “conquests” without remorse? A scoundrel who lied his way into a woman’s heart with no intention of honoring the sweet promises whispered huskily before completing his carnal pleasures?

Surely in the modern world we will no longer defend a man who simply used women to satisfy his male vanity.

The ingenious director Lasse Hallström sees the hostility to “Casanova” in an entirely different light and uses farce to paint a fresh face onto older conceptions of humanity widely debated from the time of the Enlightenment.

The director’s fascination with this topic is inseparable from a focus on the ongoing culture wars—and that should come as no surprise. After all he turned sweet candy and Johnny Depp’s immeasurable charms into a subversive force that provoked a violent reaction from the narrow minded villagers in the film “Chocolat.”

Heath Ledger’s lively portrayal of the articulate and philosophical Casanova presents a sharp counterpoint to his inarticulate cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain.” At one point in the comedy, Casanova pretends to be his own manservant. This device enables him to speak in the third person about himself and he offers this laudatory description—“Casanova the philosopher who devotes his life to the perfection of experience”—bringing a sharp retort from Sienna Miller who displays a rapier wit as the heroine, Francesca Bruni. She replies with great disgust, “No. Casanova the man who devotes his life to the seduction of women.”

The sparks that fly between the hero and the heroine ignite romance. The feminist is neither dour nor closed minded, but rather strong and admirable. An engaging man can find such women attractive. Casanova challenges right-wing stereotypes of feminists as anti-male. Good farce makes a serious point; even if that point is so buried in laughter that it is often lost on its audience.

Hallström’s conceit is that hostility to “Casanova” is an aspect of a broader hostility, centuries old, toward the Enlightenment. The so-called immoralities that diminish the reputation of the promiscuous Italian are of small importance in the greater scheme of things. The bigger principals at stake are feminism and justice. The comedy derives from the attraction these two intellectuals feel for each other, even as their beliefs separate them.

Human foibles and transgressions are the subject of delight, comedy, and gossip. But some afoot take a darker view and see crimes that deserve serious punishment—the Inquisition was still powerful in 18th century Italy, imprisoning and torturing those who transgressed Catholic strictures. Fornication is one crime; another is a heretical statement of feminist principles.

The fornicator is Casanova, but Miller plays Francesca Bruni who must pretend to be a man, in order to publish books offering an early statement of her feminism. Casanova is entranced by her wit and beauty, but must pretend to be someone else because Bruni abhors him because he stands “for everything I write against.”

The movie pleased me mightily but it is controversial. The New York Times reviewer, A. O. Scott, called it “a lively, sly, and altogether charming farce,” while Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe glumly dismissed its “relentlessly adolescent approach.” More than anything else, it is the “sly” quality that appealed to me.

Casanova gets a chance to make his case that he is an attentive lover, and the experience he “perfects” is sexual pleasure. In an age that accepted loveless marriages—namely, a culture with no divorce—this argument certainly had more urgency than it might now. And yet Casanova’s case relies on a good natured acceptance of the mutual search for a “good time” that is out of fashion today.

Conversations on such topics were fashionable in educated circles at the time. Casanova is wooing Bruni and her arguments are part of elaborate game of courting. But, their intellectual clash goes unresolved. Their debates are great games. The movie takes no sides on the intellectual issue; it shows that Casanova and Bruni are soul mates, both adventurous and ready to challenge orthodoxies. They are flung together when the inquisitor moves to arrest Casanova, who is covering for his love when Bruni’s writings awaken a repressive response. Yet Bruni will not let Casanova suffer for her work. Intellectual foes become allies in the face of real enemy—the religious Inquisition.

The political and cultural struggle ongoing here in the U.S.—posing secularists against fundamentalists—is given a different label and understanding in Europe. There, the cultural wars are seen as the latest battle in the unending argument between the Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment forces. “Casanova” draws its wit from these European distinctions.