There's more beauty than danger in 'Dangerous Beauty'

March 06, 1998|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

The film is called "Dangerous Beauty," one of those meaningless, lazy titles that recalls any number of sexual thrillers and will probably be confused in the video store with flicks from "Fatal Beauty" to "Dangerous Liaisons."

But this movie should have stayed with its first, courtly name, "Courtesan," in that it is a period drama dripping with flowers, rich costumes and radiant light that happens to be about how fabulous it is to be a prostitute.

The life of a courtesan is given its ecstatic due in this beautifully filmed "true" story about 16th-century Venetian poet Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack of "Braveheart"), who is pimped by her mother (Jacqueline Bisset) after her true love (Rufus Sewell) refuses to marry below his station.

The premise is both alluring and problematic. While wives cower in their canal-side villas as their men partake of every bed in town, the courtesans have money and therefore power. Bisset takes McCormack into a grand library, purring, "Courtesans, my dear, are the best-educated women in the world." Plus, they get sex with rich, uniformly handsome Italian men, gorgeous clothes, oysters in bed, gondola rides and torch-lit parties. Sign me up!

But wait: "Dangerous Beauty" also pretends to seriousness, and so we get half-hearted glimpses of the "bad" side of whoredom. If a girl isn't as extraordinary as Veronica, who even beds the French king in one of her more amusing transactions, she might end up hooking by the canal. She could even become an enemy of the people when war, plague and the Inquisition knock on Venice's door.

Yet fear not, courtiers. This film ends with Inquisition Lite. Like a successful romance novel, "Dangerous Beauty" mixes artificial tension with extraordinarily cheesy moments and still manages to seduce a willing audience.

It succeeds chiefly because of director Marshall Herskovitz's confidence in the power of beauty -- not just of the film's stars or sets, but of character and discourse. Everyone talks prettily as they stroll through the gardens of this Disneyland Venice (the filmmakers built a lavish outdoor set), and Veronica's voiced-over poetry perfectly expresses this stylized Eden. The most engaging scene, in fact, is her duel of words and swords with fellow poet Maffio (brooding, clever Oliver Platt). It shows off Veronica's courage, mastery of verse and ability to command respect, even as she's dressed to the nines.

Her character, of course, is hyperbolically flawless. McCormack is convincing, though it sometimes seems as if her cheekbones are working harder than she is. Sewell ("Dark City") is handsome and, well, handsome as her lover Marco, impassioned when he has to be, but trapped in a character who doesn't seem extraordinary enough to merit Veronica's affections.

It doesn't help that Sewell has to carry off a ridiculous ending. When Marco stands up for Veronica's rights at the Inquisition, the scene becomes like that moment in "In & Out" when everyone in the student body said "I'm gay!" Instead, it's "I slept with Veronica!"

She must be so proud.

'Dangerous Beauty'

Starring Catherine McCormack and Rufus Sewell

Directed by Marshall Herskovitz

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (nudity, sexuality, language, violence)

Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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