Dangerous Beauty

dangerous beauty

Some parents leave their children blissfully ignorant about love and sex, compelling them to discover such matters in their own extra-curricular way, and some, I suppose, take Paola Franco’s (Jacqueline Bisset) method. When her daughter, Veronica (Catherine McCormack), has her heart broken, she suggests that the young woman improve her fortunes by becoming a courtesan. Not merely content to offer career counseling, Paola ups the mom game and dispenses some professional advice.

A former courtesan herself, she is skilled in the art of high class seduction and schools her free-spirited daughter on the necessary skills to please the powerful. Veronica learns how to walk in platform shoes, feign pleasure, lower a long, firm stalk of asparagus into her mouth. When her mother presents her with a naked man, she gets the most thorough hands-on anatomy lesson.

It doesn’t take Veronica long to realize she’s both good at her job and enjoys it, something that doesn’t escape her former lover’s notice. Marco (Rufus Sewell), a man of higher birth, does little to hide his regret. While she beds noblemen, he can’t bear to be in the same room with his dour wife (Naomi Watts), whose deepest desire is to give him “many strong sons.” He makes an attempt at reconciliation, hoping to win her for himself.

Their relationship underlines a story that makes sudden narrative leaps. Based on the true story of the sixteenth century Venetian woman that was recounted in the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal, the film also explores political intrigue. When the city is threatened with war, Veronica must use her skills to win an alliance with the French king. Later, with the city in turmoil, she stands trial for witchcraft and faces execution.

The transition between these later plot points could be more fluid, with earlier indications of civil unrest replacing some of Veronica and Marco’s repetitive flirtations. I also never quite settled on the inconsistency of American and British accents, in sixteenth century Venice no less.

I was impressed, however, that the film was carried entirely by a woman who proves herself well-matched against every person and situation she encounters. Veronica is first enticed into the profession not by wealth or revenge but by a library. When she realizes that courtesans not only have the opportunity to be educated but are expected to display great learning, she begins her training in earnest. One of the most satisfying scenes is when she strikes back at Marco’s jilted cousin (Oliver Platt) with a sword and verse, furiously crossing blades even as she waxes poetical. “I confess I fuck divinely / those who love and well opine me.”

Alt Titles: The Honest Courtesan, A Destiny of Her Own
Released: 1998
Prod: Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, Arnon Milchan, Sarah Caplan
Dir: Marshall Herskovitz
Writer: Jeannine Dominy
Cast: Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt, Jacqueline Bisset, Fred Ward, Naomi Watts, Moira Kelly, Jeroen Krabbé, Jake Weber, Tim McMullan
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

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