Sunday, February 17, 2019

Dangerous Beauty (1999)


Watched ‘Dangerous Beauty’ (1999) on Primevideo.

This is going to be one of my favorite movies of all times.

A biographical drama film about Courtesans of 16th century Venice in general, and Veronica Franco, in particular. It shows the position they held in society, the methodical way in which they prepared for the pleasure they were expected to offer, the reading and learning they dedicated themselves to, to offer counsel that the nobility looked up to them for, the role they played in the affairs of the State, the Church’s growing resentment towards the city’s moral degradation, the society’s changing outlook towards Courtesans influenced by the men of God and at last, the Inquisition.

This is one of the finest movies I have seen. Many movies have been made on Prostitution with the prostitute as a protagonist but no other movie pays better tribute to Prostitution than this.
Unlike most other movies that attempt to draw sympathy/empathy for the prostitute by painting her woes, compulsions, her poverty, her helplessness, and some, by showing her human side, this one celebrates her, for just who she is, and it celebrates her profession for just what it offers. Pleasure.
And expresses gratitude to her.
There is the odd man who calls her a slut and a whore but he is shown losing a duel to her in a sword fight, as the crowds fear and cheer for her.

Venice, 1583. The richest, most decadent city in Europe. (Venice may as well be deemed one large floating brothel)
It's women were treated like property - few even knew how to read.
‘Young ladies have better things to do than poison their minds with books’
‘Such as?’
‘Minding their manners’.
But there were some who enjoyed a different fate.

Veronica(Catherine McCormack) and Marco(Rufus Sewell) are in love with each other.
Says Marco To Veronica, on his return from Rome, ‘Oh,Roman women, they can't hold a candle to the Venetian. Nor French, nor Florentine, nor any woman from Europe to the Levant’
‘You've sampled them all’
‘All but idle amusement until you blossomed…’
But Marco, who will be a senator like his father, is way above her station. Veronica’s mother, Paola, consoles her daughter saying she could still have him, not as a wife but as a courtesan.
The mother, who was once a great courtesan herself, had hoped to buy her daughter a good marriage but the father drank away all the dowry so to keep the family going, she urges her daughter to become a courtesan, there being ‘no other option’.
Veronica says she could go to the convent - so the mother takes her to one. Whether it is the devil or the deep sea she chooses, she must first get a glimpse of it.
There inside the high walls of the gray and grim convent, Veronica is terrified by what she sees. A nun cutting off a girl's tresses, as the girl sobs away.

So her mother begins the training.

‘The first secret of all great courtesans - you must know pleasure to give pleasure’
She arranges for a naked man and demonstrates how to touch his genitals as the daughter stands by and learns.
‘Use your fingers lightly first, keep him wanting more. It's wanting that keeps us alive’
She is taught to walk on very thick wedges.
‘Height gives advantage to men as well to women. Carriage creates the first impression’
She is taken to a library.
‘Ladies can't go in there, courtesans can. The emperor Pericles relied more for policy on his mistress than he ever did on his Lieutenants. Courtesans are the most educated women in the world’
And then she is taught the subtle finer aspects of her art, beyond the learning of books and accessories.
‘Courtesan is a force of nature in a civilized cloak. Any chambermaid can flop down, take off her shirt and men will come…Your true power comes from something much deeper than beauty…She could seduce a man in 20 paces. Without revealing an inch of flesh…How?…With her mind. Desire begins in the mind’
And finally, the ultimate word of caution.
‘Remember Veronica, love love, but do not love the man, or you'll be in his power’

The morning after her first client, the mother gives her a potion, saying, ‘children are a deficit….the potion is not infallible but more comfortable than a turtle shell’

Soon, she becomes famous and loved by men of high rank.
‘Every Thursday?’, asks a nobleman once, who is in love with her.
‘I should count the hours in between’ says she (such fine talking)
The gold and the gifts start pouring in. The family’s fortune changes.

It is interesting to note that even men of God consorted with these women.
‘Bishop de la Torre…It's said his collection of paintings is surpassed only by his collection of women’

Marco who cannot get over his love for Veronica, woos her.
One day, a peacock flies up into her bedchamber. 'All the best courtesans have one', reads the note tied to the neck of the peacock. She runs to the balcony and there in a boat, is Marco, wooing her.
She turns him down, still smarting from the insult of having been turned down by him.

Marco receives a proposal. His father shows him a small portrait that he holds in his hand. Marco agrees.
‘You had the feigned indifference of a man in love’ says a bystander friend.
Marco marries the noblewoman. ‘What God and greed have joined together, let no love put asunder’ says he (speaking of arranged marriage of convenience)

‘Tell me a desire’, he asks his wife on their wedding night. ‘I hope to give you many strong sons’, says she. Marco sees that she is nothing like the witty, spirited Veronica.

In between all this, there are the men from the church beseeching people on the streets to shun desires, and lament that the city is full of depravity and filth and persuade people to save themselves.

When Maffio (Oliver Platt) makes disparaging remarks about her, Veronica invites him to a sword fight.
The sword fight that grows more and more fierce, but Veronica defeats Maffio. After the incident, Marco rekindles his love with Veronica.
He cannot share her with anyone, he asks her not to see any body else, but she has mouths to feed. He is ready to support her, but ‘no money between us’ says he. At last, she consents to his proposal much to the resentment of her mother.

In the meantime, the fourth Ottoman-Venetian war breaks out.
‘The Sultan(Turk) has attacked’
Venice is ready to fight but needs France’s ships to fight the Turks. When the king visits Venice must indulge him. He must be appeased no matter what it takes.

When King Henry visits, the men of God urge him to ‘fight the infidels at home before fighting them abroad’
‘France has them too. I prefer a heretic to a zealot’ says he.

The King asks to see the courtesans that Venice is so famous for. Veronica tries to stand behind, unnoticed but he chooses her.
After their togetherness, he descends down to the waterfront.
The entire nobility and the people of Venice are standing outside, holding their breath to hear his utterance. ‘You can have the ships’, he says as he sails away.
People cheer and there s jubilation. Veronica is hailed as ‘a national asset, more than a hundred French ships, by them all’

Marco is bitter. Veronica pleads before him, saying she endures his intimacy with the wife every night, while she consented to one intimate moment with the King, just once out of duty towards the nation, ‘look, who does not forgive?’
But he walks away unable to take it…

During the war,
The ladies of the nobility and royalty summon her to hear the latest news about the war. To know if their husbands are alive. She happens to be more educated and informed than them all.
Marco’s wife insults her, wondering aloud ‘what makes their husbands go to these women, night after night, like pigs to a trough’.
In answer, Veronica peels a banana and swallows it whole, mentioning the name of the plantain tree and the banana fruit in Latin.
Marco’s wife, cringing from what Veronica had just done, says, ‘Just because you say it in Latin, it doesn’t make it less obscene’.
‘And just because you took a vow, it doesn't mean you know how to love’, retorts Veronica, adding that education is the only thing that will adorn a woman, or something to that effect. (I had become tired of taking notes by then!)

Beatrice, Marco’s sister and Veronica’s friend, asks Veronica to make her daughter a courtesan when she grows up.
‘No biblical hell could ever be worse than a state of perpetual inconsequence’ says she, speaking of the fate of married women, like herself.

The war is over and Marco returns home. Horrified and saddened by the sights that greet him. Plague has devastated the city. Courtesans are tied up in public squares and flogged by the Inquisition. ‘The inquisition? In Venice?…. Yes, 56000 dead’. Venice is the ghost of the beautiful city that it once was.

He returns to Veronica, now in plain garment, divested of all her adornments and apologizes to her for his harshness at the time of their parting.

And just then, ‘summons to appear before the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition. From the church’. Veronica is taken away.
She is accused of witchcraft and is asked to name her clients.
She denies. She refuses to repent. Or ask for forgiveness. Marco begs her to lie, just to save her life. But she chooses to be honest.
‘I chose a whore's freedom over a wife's obedience…’
‘I confess I find more ecstasy in passion than in prayer. Such passion is prayer’
When she is about to be sentenced to execution, Marco confesses to be an accomplice in her sin and urges the senators and ministers present there to stand up for her and admit their adulteries.
Bewildered to see almost all the men assembled up on their feet, including a man of God seat beside him as part of the inquisition, the inquisitor drops all charges, leaving it to Venice to decide what to do with her.
(I cant tell you what a relief it was!)

The Age of courtesans had ended. In the years to come, Veronica Franco used her home as a sanctuary for victims of the Inquisition. She and Marco Venier remained lovers for the rest of their lives.

A fine movie. I wished the movie had gone on and on.

One has to be careful not to be swayed too much. The courtesan chosen to be the protagonist in this narrative, is a paragon of virtues - she is kind, loving, she’s innocent in a way, she’s learned, brave, dignified and honest. Although reluctant to share her body with another man because of her pact with her lover, she receives the King of France out of her duty to the nation and secures naval reinforcements from him to help Venice fight the Turkish Sultan.
In our own Sanskrit literature, there was the courtesan Vasantasena, who loved the married man Charudutt, in the play ‘Mrittchakatika’. (Mrit + Shakatika, meaning, mud cart)
She was a kind-hearted woman. When a humble Charudutt’s son playing with a mud cart laments that he doesn’t have a gold cart unlike his playmates, she removes her jewelry and loads his cart with it, just to see the child happy.

It could only be delusional to assume that Veronica was representative of her ilk and that all courtesans were full of virtues like her.
As Paola (Jacqueline Bisset) herself says in the movie, most others were just two-bit ‘chambermaids that would flop down and take off their shirt’ for anyone who threw money at them.

One has also to remember that these courtesans who were respected and well treated happened to be educated, well read and offered counsel to the nobility in matters of the State. Even then there was the odd man who dismissed them as sluts and whores.
Most of the others then, the ‘two bit chambermaids’ who had nothing else to offer other than their flesh, must have received much less or no respect.
This I believe, is as it ought to be, and as it will inevitably be, when humans objectify themselves by turning into flesh alone, by preoccupying themselves and others with their body, with no manifestation of the mind or spirit.
It is because of this. The body is gross, the spirit subtle. A human life is endowed with the mind and the spirit and is meant to be lived in pursuit of the fine, the subtle - call it the soul, the Self, or God. When you divest yourself of these higher faculties that distinguish you from an animal, and reduce yourself to flesh, you reduce yourself to a lower form of life. Or, in other words, a lowlife.
Which is why, the liberal minded, for all their approval of the ‘oldest profession in the world’ upon whom ‘the sun does not refuse to shine and rain does not refuse to fall, so why should I’, will never ever hold their new born and wish, that their little princess may one day grow up to be sex worker. (I rest my case)

Which is why, the ‘models’ and ‘actresses’ of the glam industry, as well as prostitutes of today, who reduce themselves into mere flesh, and also use it for cheap purposes, to advance their material ambitions, no matter which door they use to sneak into the mainstream society, and try to sit next to you and me, and ‘act’ respectable, no matter how kind hearted they pretend to be, by having their pictures taken with starving African kids, there will be the odd man, who will call their bluff, rip off their facade, and reveal them for who they really are. The sluts and whores. Never, the Veronica, never the Vasantasena.

From my notes…

‘Venice. Paradise. Proud and pretty…’

‘Paradise is always frail
Against man's fear will always fail’

‘God made sin that we might know his mercy’

‘He makes my heart, my reason's foe’

‘Save your blushes veronica, they don't sit well with the bluntness of your tongue’

‘Marriage isn't romantic, that's why God invented poetry’

‘Doge - the chief magistrate in the former Republics of Venice and Genoa’

Ermine -
an Old World weasel, Mustela erminea, having in its winter color phase, a white coat with black at the tip of the tail;
any of various weasels having a white winter coat;
the lustrous, white, winter fur of the ermine, often having fur from the animal's black tail tip inserted at intervals for contrast

#westerncinema


4 comments:

Manish Chhabra said...

Liked the way you compared the two similar narratives , will watch this weekend . Happy to see , some folks in my city still beat the plastic keys to express the heartfelt !!

Anonymous said...

Long back I gave a suggestion to read "Empires of the Indus". You wrote a nice review. Coming back to your blog after a long time. Here is a Suggestion again, philosophical in a way, some parts of which might rhyme with this movie review, "Kama-The Riddle of Desire" by Gurucharan Das.

Sowmya Chakravarthy said...

Thank you both for reading...

Anon, thanks for the recommendation

Kottapali said...

Very interesting. Need to check it out. I am glad you connected to Mrutchakatikam. Much closer to home and our times, we have Bengaluru Nagaratnamma and Bala Saraswathi.