It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"The life you lead, the freedom you have--will you deny my daughters the same chance?" Not the request every mother would address to a prostitute, but "Dangerous Beauty" makes a persuasive case for the life of a courtesan in 16th century Venice. At a time when Europeans are bemused by our naivete about dalliance in high places, this is, I suppose, the film we should study. It's based on the true story of Veronica Franco, a well-born Venetian beauty who deliberately chose the life of a courtesan because it seemed a better choice than poverty, or an arranged marriage to a decayed nobleman.
Veronica, played by Catherine McCormack with cool insight into the ways of men, is a woman who becomes the lover of many because she cannot be the lover of one. She is in love with the curly headed Marco (Rufus Sewell), and he with her, but they cannot wed; "I must marry," he tells her, "according to my station and my family's will." Veronica knows this is true, and knows, too, that because her father has squandered the family fortune, she is also expected to marry money.
Shall they then become unmarried lovers? Marco persuasively argues, "God made sin that we might know his mercy." But then Veronica, her virginity lost, could never make a good marriage. Her mother (Jacqueline Bisset) has a better idea. "You cannot marry Marco, but you shall have him! You'll become a courtesan--like your mother used to be." Veronica's eyes widen, but her mother's logic prevails, and the daughter is launched on a training course in grooming, fashion and deportment. Her mother even shows her to a great Venetian library, off limits to women, but not to Veronica ("Courtesans are the most educated women in the world"). For a courtesan, as for an army recruit, the goal is to be all that she can be. And indeed Veronica is soon the most popular and respected fallen woman in Venice, sought by princes, generals and merchants, and even dandled on the knee of the cardinal.
The film, directed with great zest by Marshall Herskovitz, positions this story somewhere between a romance novel and a biopic. It looks like Merchant-Ivory but plays like "Dynasty." And it's set in a breathtakingly lovely Venice, where special effects have been used to empty the Grand Canal of motorboats and fill it with regattas and gondolas. No city is more sensuous, more suited to intrigue, more saturated with secrets.
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