There isn't anything much wrong per se with the premise of Austrian director Michael Sturminger's riff on the life and times of 18th century libertine Giacomo Casanova, melding his much-celebrated memoirs with excerpts and arias from operas by Mozart. What is wrong with the end result, however, could possibly have been settled by passing it on to somebody else to direct and tighten.
Instead, Mr. Sturminger allows this "variation" on his own stage creation The Giacomo Variations to lose itself in a maze of metafictional layers that, more often than not, seem to be a mere vanity project for its star John Malkovich. Which is somewhat unfair both to the director and Mr. Malkovich, as, at its core, Casanova Variations is about performance, and life as performance.
To be sure, it's the sort of multi-layered, multi-media project that the late Werner Schroeter would have loved to direct, and that restless actors like Mr. Malkovich tend to gravitate towards for all the thoughtfulness about their own trade they key into. But Mr. Sturminger's hyper-stylized approach is nowhere in the same league, bringing everything down to the level of a flashily packaged amuse-bouche or after-dinner mint for upscale audiences, spinning the on-stage/off-stage connections with much fireworks but little originality.
In the tale's central layer, courtisane Elisa van der Recke (Veronica Ferres) visits the ailing Casanova with mysterious intents as he is putting the finishing touches to his memoirs, wherein he presents himself as little more than a trained monkey performing for his supper and for his reputation. Mr. Sturminger then zooms out to an opera stage where Casanova and Elisa witness themselves, as played by opera singers Florian Boesch and Miah Persson, watching the playing out of selected episodes of the libertine's life; and then zooms further out as Mr. Malkovich plays himself playing (and occasionally singing) Casanova on stage and interacts with his agent, the stage manager and even an audience member.
The constant mise en abîme is held together by the director's decision to film everything with a restless, handheld camera; but what could have been a clever way to tie together the various layers of commentary on performance turns out to be the last drop that throws the entire concept over the top and sands the edges out of the sculpture. The playfulness of the "all the world's a stage" back-and-forth, and the clever transitions between levels (a door, a window, a curtain), required a nimbler, more assured hand than Mr. Sturminger's, who basically exploits both the premise and the handheld approach to the point of overkill.
It's peculiar how Casanova Variations seems to play out in a constant "right now" that flattens and loses sense of time, and how that leads into the progressive deflating of the film's balloon. Halfway through its two-hour length, the game is up, the viewer is aware of the different layers of reality and of how they connect to each other, and all that remains is to watch its pieces fall predictably and at length into its proper place, robbing the film of any further interest or sense of surprise. And even despite Mozart's glorious music and some fine performances from the assembled cast of singers and actors, Casanova Variations seems destined for that half-hidden corner in the cabinet where you put away curious oddities that are not devoid of conceptual interest but whose realisation is not as successful as its premise.
Portugal, Austria, Germany 2014
Cast John Malkovich, Veronica Ferres, Florian Boesch, Miah Persson, Lola Naymark, Kerstin Averno, Tracy Ann Obermann, Maria João Bastos, Kate Lindsey, Anna Prohaska, Barbara Hannigan, Topi Lehtipuu, Christopher Purves, Ana Maria Pinto, Maria João Luís, Victória Guerra, Daniel Schmutzhard, Fanny Ardant, Jonas Kaufmann
Director Michael Sturminger; screenwriters Mr. Sturminger and Markus Schleinzer; based on Mr. Sturminger's stage production The Giacomo Variations, using material from the memoir Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte; cinematographer André Szankowski (colour); musical director Martin Haselböck; production and costume designers Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser; editor Evi Romen; producers Paulo Branco, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu and Bady Minck; production companies Alfama Films Production and Amour Fou Filmproduktion in co-production with X-Filme Creative Pool and Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion, with the collaboration of ZDF/ARTE, ORF and RTP and co-financing from Leopardo Filmes
Screened November 29th 2014, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)