What a coincidence that Benoît Jacquot’s Casanova, Last Love (Dernier amour) opens so soon after Bill Cosby’s sexual-assault conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, overruling the court of media opinion. Jacquot’s period film itself presents a confluence of legend and modern attitudes. It comes down to a startlingly timely exchange between the 18th-century rakehell Giacomo Casanova (Vincent Lindon) and his latest paramour, both discussing admiration for a recent (1748) philosophical treatise by Montesquieu: “She loves On the Spirit of Law.”
This coincidence is fantastic because Casanova, Last Love is pointedly set in a lavishly romantic period where Montesquieu’s disquisition would have been popular among its aristocratic characters — at least as filmmakers like to imagine that class. And yet Jacquot presents a case for Casanova’s humanity that’s quite mindful of the modern court of media opinion.
Under threat of the #MeToo movement, Jacquot dares an all-apologetic Casanova biopic. Casanova, Last Love depicts the quintessential European seducer’s final years, when the philanderer finally meets his match. Exiled in England, he falls for the wiles of dissolute, money-grubbing vixen La Charpillon (Stacy Martin, the provocateur-actress best known for Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomia).
The intrigues of Casanova, Last Love share the spirit of earlier Jacquot features in which high-minded eroticism was styled for the European art-house market. When Jacquot’s movies were first imported here in the Nineties, his fondness for casting nubile actresses (Virginie Ledoyen, Judith Godrèche) and using a puppy-dog camera to follow their ways of walking, announced the arrival of a skirt-chaser — French cinema’s newest Casanova. Now, it’s almost as if the filmmaker himself was proclaiming mea culpa.
Casanova, the aging artist relegated to writing his memoirs, narrates his story to Cécile (Julia Roy), a young woman who listens in sympathetic judgment to his self-flagellating heartbreak story. (She inquires, “Must we suffer to know we loved?”) Baggy-eyed Lindon is, like Cosby, a shadow of his once-virile self. (Lindon was memorably le dur in such films as Claire Denis’s Friday Night and The Measure of a Man.) But in flashbacks, Lindon’s Casanova remains feral, especially when he removes his courtier’s powdered wig. Casanova’s up-front masculinity is tested before Europe’s brazen femininity: Martin’s La Charpillon, her procuress mother (Anna Cottis), and Lady Hortense Stavenson (Nancy Tate), all demonstrating female sexual agency in contrast to Casanova’s weary ego.
The most sophisticated aspect of Jacquot’s film is the idea that debauchery occurred long ago, even before #MeToo — only politically motivated cover-ups are new. The brazen, bare-legged seductresses; upper-class orgies; patrician roués; a pervert publicly defecating at a party — all recall a history of sexual behavior that dishonest media, activists, and politicians deliberately, insistently deny.
Jacquot rethinks the Casanova legend and admits the sexual and social transactional risks that #MeToo disavows. Very candid, very French. Female adventuress La Cornelys (Valeria Golino) faces legal punishment yet makes the era’s excuses about “the fluctuations of existence.” That resignation explains Jacquot/Lindon’s sad, regretful Casanova figure. Subject to La Charpillon’s erratic ploys, their relationship resembles the mutual exploitation familiarly known as Of Human Bondage.
Jacquot’s approach to contemporary feminism complements KINO’s recent Blu-Ray release of Federico Fellini’s film maudit from 1977, Casanova. In that episodic history, Fellini took Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon influence and made it personal. Fellini’s Casanova (a decadent, physically deformed Donald Sutherland) embodied the modern crisis — “insecure, neurotic, unresolved fixations” — that now define #MeToo.
This realization comes through in spite of Fellini’s odd attempt to undermine the Casanova legend. A strange, deliberately harsh masterwork, this was Fellini’s mea culpa, borrowing Antonioni’s great subject — “Eros Is Sick” — but in the aftermath of the Seventies porn revolution and alongside Ken Russell’s neurotic spectacles. It parallels Pasolini’s extraordinary sado-masochistic political film Salo, and Fellini’s Casanova is equally unsettling.
Compared with Fellini, Jacquot is a lightweight. But most filmmakers are not in a position to oppose the cultural mob and keep working, so Jacquot goes easy on #MeToo. Casanova, Last Love performs an inversion of sexual mores — from Bob Hope’s comedy Casanova’s Last Night and Fellini’s revisionist effort to the Cosby case — all the while questioning the idea of masculine romantic conquest. This time, Jacquot inquires into feminine complicity, too. In Casanova’s final exchange with Cécile, he teaches her that men and women share the same psychic vulnerability — the spirit of law some feminist activists refuse to learn from the Cosby case.