Dangerous Beauty

3 out of 5

Directed by: Marshall Herskovitz

This is an interesting movie to watch in 2019, as we’re still in the wake (and waves) of attempts to be wider-eyed in terms of gender roles, diversity, identity, and more, and not – alas – as prompted by some mass evolution of awareness, but rather by strings of exposed prejudices on major and minor fronts. Which, of course, could and should populate down to the most micro level: examining one’s own behaviors. While it is, on the one hand, shocking, to realize how bottom rung we still are in regards to a lot of these things, it lends itself to interesting (and possibly damning, and possibly frustrating) reviews of what came before, whether that’s within our personal histories, or, y’know, actual reviews of things.

Dangerous Beauty, based on a book covering part of the life of ‘intellectual courtesan’ Veronica Franco, is rather amazing on a particular account: that it never slut-shames its lead for indulging in quite a bit of – and seemingly enjoying, on most accounts – sex, sex, and sex. There is some reframing at various points where the film (and Veronica) makes it clear that the skin trading is just part of her job, which is furthermore part of a larger – skimmed – discussion on how women were (are?) limited to either playing the bought-and-paid-for wife or the bought-and-paid-for whore, with it being, at the time, veritably pish-poshed for ‘proper’ women to also be educated, but even with this explanatory aspect, it’s not used to shade Franco as otherwise demure: she’s still a sexual being, and not looked down upon in any way by the camera lens.

After a shallow meet-again-now-that-we’re-older-and-hornier-cute between Franco (Catherine McCormack) and senator’s son Marco (Rufus Sewell), and a rushed introduction for Veronica into the courtesan life by her mother (Jacqueline Bisset), after it’s made clear that poor ladies shan’t marry rich men, I wasn’t expecting much from the film beyond soft, boobs-exposed erotica and some fated lovers drama, but the script’s divergence thereafter into this rather firm, mature feminism – rare even into today’s films – was a pleasant surprise, and McCormack leans into the beguiling nature of her character wonderfully, such that you can buy it when she becomes the most desired company in town, whether for physical pleasures or, as in the case of the elder, leprous Domenico (Fred Ward), just for the pleasures of company.

There is soft erotica, mind you, with see-thru negligees and playful romps in the sack, and the film is given a buoyant touch by director Marshall Herskovitz, having fun with the stuff without lingering too lecherously, and with the Venice setting’s production a pleasing blend between well-chosen locations and (as it looked to me) old-school backdrops.

…But… Dangerous Beauty still suffers the pangs of having to be a film, and having to have a beginning, middle, and end. And so there are the generic steps of the opening sequences, which, as always in these rom-com-drams, boil ultimate love down to some smoldering glances and, like, a fun horse ride, and the forced fish-out-of-water comedy of Veronica being exposed to the world of man. Its much smarter, more entertaining middle section starts seeding in a bad guy – religion – which inevitably then has to become the Obstacle to overcome (rather illogically and simply) in film’s latter portion, and there’s this gigantic sidestep to tittering at naysayers, such as Marco’s frustrated, uptight wife (Naomi Watts), while also wanting us to cheer, somehow, for fidelity; looking down at the many married men who shared Veronica’s bed but then glorifying the way the profession potentially liberated people…

Dangerous Beauty, in its best moments, appreciably tackles some twisty, complex subject matter with a fun, lighthanded deftness. But the film shorthands its way into this, then takes a similar shortcut out, and this exit undermines a lot of the statements it seemed to be trying to make…