Monday, 23 October 2017

Powderpuff picaresque… The Loves of Casanova (1927), with Stephen Horne, BFI, London Film Festival 2017

The BFI’s Bryony Dixon describes The Loves of Casanova as “… an exercise in ebullience…”, whilst Lenny Borger called it a “"Europudding" – albeit with plenty of flavour… and it’s hard to disagree. You could watch this film as a kind of biopic either of the life of Giacomo Casanova or of Ivan Mozzhukhin, possibly both… but either way there’s no absence of charisma.

The film was shot partially in Venice and it was good to revisit the location so soon after I recently returned there, albeit 90 years before… (it hasn’t changed much, but then I doubt it ever does, a little lower perhaps?). Entirely because sumptuous locations just are not enough, Casanova also features a veritable “kitchen sink” delivery of mise-en-scène throughout and not least for the climactic scenes with stunning Pathecolour during Venice carnival.

The camera is right amongst the action too, hand-held in Gance style, pulling the viewer into this glorious world of masked balls, illicit liaisons and romance… with a guy who can’t say no. There’s Casanova sword-fighting a dozen men, a colourized river-rescue, massed pursuit by gondola and horse and sleigh pursuit in the snow with everyone but the lead – audience and supporting players – in shock as our hero keeps his cool home and away…

Ivan Mozzhukhin: ridicule is nothing to be scared of
Bryony said the film was an attempt to out-Hollywood, Hollywood and it certainly has a good go. A tinsel-titled Casanova is followed by exploding fireworks and then dreams of dancers in Venice as our hero is revealed in his luxurious quarters. He is woken by his two, attractive blonde “assistants” just in time for the first bailiff of the day to attempt to arrest him.

The men find a famous dancer, La Corticelli (a shockingly topless Rina De Liguoro) in Casanova’s bedroom and the host then performs “magic”, persuading Menucci to accept his book of spells in exchange for the debt. Then we meet little Djimi (Raymond Bouamerane) who is the servant of Baroness Stanhope (Olga Day), he asks a man on the street where Casanova lives and all the windows in the street are opened by women who know the answer. The mood is playful, Russian whimsy filtered through French style as young Djimi plays tag with Casanova’s two assistants and then is chased by Baron Stanhope (Dimitri Dimitriev) as he tries to deliver a message from C to B… she reads the letter and then throws the torn pieces out of the window only for her husband to catch both them and their meaning.

A bit blue: Rina De Liguoro and friends
Next to a grand banquet in which Corticelli is host and we also meet a lieutenant of the Russian Imperial Guard, Gregori Orloff (Paul Guidé) who has plans of his own… slipping round the back to watch the women dance naked as Casanova and the rest stare at the shadows their bodies cast on a screen… It is SO saucy and, when our hero picks up his favourite dancer – Corticelli of course – she is clearly naked (of course). Ooh, la, la!! Or, as they say in Liverpool, ooh, la, la, la

But the Lieutenant is also interested and duels with Casanova but the dancer decides that they should be friends…  And that’s only the first half an hour!

Chased out of Venice on jumped up charges of sorcery, Casanova heads North and, in Austria, encounters Duc de Bayreuth (Albert Decoeur) and his party which includes a pretty-faced boy, Bellino… Casanova intervenes to stop a group of drunks abusing an old fiddle player showing that he’s a much Robin Hood as Don Juan and Bellino seems strangely impressed.

About a boy? Jenny and Ivan
During the night Casanova hears odd noises and Volkoff shows our hero imagining hazy images to go with the sounds as he leans, in sharp focus, against the door. There’s something afoot and the great lover once more springs to the rescue to find that Bellino is not at all a boy and that the Duc is trying to have his evil way with her… Thérèse (Jenny Jugo).

A dramatic rescue is cut short as sheer weight of men and horses overcomes Casanova… will he ever find her again? Here again there are some great shots from Volkoff and his team of cinematographers, Fédote Bourgasoff, Léonce-Henri Burel and Nikolai Toporkoff. With a camera pointing up as men on horseback race overhead you are reminded of the director’s work on Gance’s Napoleon.

He and Djimi are rescued by a passing stage coach containing M. Dupont who is en route to the court of Catherine II with the latest in lingerie and dresses… Casanova takes his stock and his passport – needs must and he has another court to conquer as Ivan and Alex make a dream return home.

Suzanne Bianchetti and Catherine's great, big train...
In St Petersburg we find Dr Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, highly impressive as a fractious Tsar Peter III and Suzanne Bianchetti as a serene Catherine II… The queen takes rather well to her new friend and his fashions and as Orloff spots his old mucker, the two remember their pledge to remain friends just in time… and, soon, there are more important matters afoot. The Tsar is going too far, and regime change is in the air, he humiliates Catherine once too often and Casanova comes to her aid as the Empress’ forces re-align the gender balance at the top of government.

Catherine, who is pretty great, arranges a ball to celebrate and it’s here that Casanova spots Maria, Duchess de Mari (Diana Karenne) … He just can’t help himself “selecting” and it’s always “at first sight” as well… He’s a gentleman but he is more lion than human if you want to get zoological.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Paul Guidé
At the ball Empress Catherine has perhaps the longest train in movie history… the ensuing dance is a cauldron of human emotion with the director showing the faces of the main players, Casanova looking at Maria, Catherine, put out, gazing on with jealous concern, the Duke of Mari uneasy as his wife is romanced and Orloff concerned, as always, for his queen… The camera follows the movement around the huge ballroom and it’s another glorious set piece.

There’s more to come after Casanova and Maria escape from Russia and her husband and it’s back to Venice for a colourised denouement and more tough choices for our hero on the romance-front: it’s unrelenting and could easily carry on for Casanova in an endless loop of over-lapping love stories.

Diana Karenne and Ivan Mozzhukhin
Casanova is a dream of escape from responsibility and not just a tale of amorous addiction. Casanova always easily evades the officials and gallops off to love again …he always has a way out just as he'll always - nearly - get captured by his heart.

Stephen Horne had a ball with this, creating over two hours of musical variety in a four-hander with Ivan’s rhythmic mime. The plot and pacing may occasionally wander but Stephen held theme and tone driving the narrative onwards in characterful interplay with the lead’s darting eyes and feline grace.

As Bryony Dixon said, she could have picked any number of Ivan’s French films of this period – a golden streak for Mozzhukhin and Alexandre Volkoff, but this one is the most lavish and light-hearted and clearly all concerned were deadly serious about the project. It made us laugh and long for an era of powderpuff decadence.


  1. Hey, I just watched this recently! It's such a romp - I enjoyed it greatly. The stencil-coloured section must have looked wonderful in restoration! And yes, Catherine the Great's train was eye-boggling. A wonderfully decadent film.

    1. It's ripe for rediscovery and the restoration must surely make if the BR/DVD sometime - so much fun and Ivan's sense of humour is let rip!