A Golden Cock

Casanova directed by Federico Fellini soon to be in Boston

SAY "CASANOVA" and fantasize. An irresistible cock, glitter, a leopard voice, suave and strong--these fragments make a fantasy character out of adult fairy tale. Casanova stands for the Prince Charming of sex, the man whom all women can have but none can hold, the supreme stud who infallibly provides the ultimate fuck. Everybody knows just enough about the courtly playboy to create such a puppet; few have enough information to flesh out a human individual, Giacomo Casanova of Venice. For art and imagination's sake, so much the better; a real person is too eccentric to be the plaything of a world's fantasy. But the marionette Casanova, everyone makes and manipulates.

Federico Fellini's Casanova is a fantastic puppet-show. Loosely structured on Casanova's autobiography, the film relates his amorous adventures in an anecdotal style similar to that of Fellini's earlier film, Roma. Episodes succeed each other in a vaguely chronological order, but there is no plot, no continuum of theme, no development of character or emotions. One woman is followed by another woman, and another woman, one court, another court, one spectacle, another spectacle, another spectacle. One fuck, another fuck, another fuck.

Fellini unifies these disjointed variations on a chamber music theme with pure showmanship, with extravagant, baroque, visually stupendous theatrics. The curtain rises, as it were, on a magnificent Venetian mosque on the Grand Canal. As fireworks explode above the Rialto and gondolas pass below, the huge head of a woman is hoisted out of the canal. Suddenly--a rope breaks, poles fall, masquers scream and the vast shape sinks back under the dark green water. The camera focuses in on one costumed mannequin, dressed in white, with his hair pulled back off an amazingly high forehead. The stage is set for Casanova.

Throughout its three hours, the film strives for operatic, spectacular effects. Some of the results are aesthetically stunning: at the end of an opera in Dreyden, the huge candle-laden silver chandeliers descend glowing white, gold and silver from the ceiling. Lowered past the grey arches of the boxes, they throw black shadows upwards. Below, dark figures in cocked hats wait, holding huge semicircular fans of metal. Waving these, they fan out the chandeliers. When the hall is darkened, they hoist the fans over their shoulders and march out, footsteps echoing rhythmically. The whole scene is the elaborate artifice of a long dead time and place, but the patterns, colors and shapes in which it is realized are those of abstract art; the movements are modern dance.

Fellini's visual dramatics are alternately hilarious, grotesque or ritualistic. Every situation, every object, every character is extreme. One court is full of unbelievably rich, unbelievably ugly old duchesses, another revolves around a loathsome insect-like homosexual, the epitome of perversion. A third is the scene of bear-pit debauchery; here Casanova wins this contest: how many times can you came in an hour of fucking?

Casanova contains more screwing than most porno flicks, more derogatory statements about women, gays, the French, the English, the afflicted and freaks than any chauvinism. But the film's operatics and unreality make it unoffensive and asexual. Casanova does not move, frighten, or arouse us, because it does not take place in our world.

FELLINI DELIGHTS in showing us how he has made this artificial world, like a slyly smiling magician revealing the secrets of each of his tricks. And this master is such a consummate artist that his revelations are more marvelous than the tricks were. The stage-set world is fascinating because it is visibly cardboard; Casnova and the other characters are intriguing because they are caricatures, marionettes.

Effect substitues for reality. From the initial credits on, one is not permitted to forget that the infinite number of European courts in which the action takes place were all constructed in Cinecitta ("movie city") just outside of Rome. In one sequence, Casanova rows a boat across the Venetian lagoon in a thunderstorm; he holds no oars, sits in no boat, and the wildly surging waves are obviously green plastic. The stock sound of water-in-a-storm fills the air... or is it the sound of plastic bags in a gale? Nature blurs into artifice. Casanova is first seen costumed for a masque--but he never takes off the fanciful white undergarments of that scene, or changes his doll-like pompadour. Costume, one realizes, is his only clothing.

Fellini's Casanova is not a person, but the sex puppet of fantasy. He makes love as though he were doing push-ups; it is a mechanical performance, a physical feat. Only once does this figure meet a female from whom he appears to take pleasure. She is a miracle of art, a mechanical doll made of china. Casanova screws her differently, with a new harmony. They are two freaks of a kind. Casnova's lovemaking is artifice, aptly symbolized by the mechanical golden cock he carries into each bedroom, winds, and sets going to accompany his pulsations with its music and pumping.

At the end of Fellini's marionette show the music-box bird rusts among busts of Homer, and the aged Casanova dreams surrounded by books in a northern court. His dreams are the stuff his myth has been made out of: Venetian splendour, glittering women coming towards him, or running coquettishly away. But in his dream he dances with only one lady, on a frozen Grand Canal under the Rialto; the porcelain doll and Casanova revolve to the music of his golden cock, in a world made only of illusion, creations of self-conscious art.

Casanova is Fellini's latest statement on a theme he is constantly exploring: the problem of the creator, the man who tries to restructure experience to make it art. Casanova of Fellini's imagining, who has tried to make his life's pursuit the transforming of the ultimate natural experience into art, who wants to transform the phrase "to make love" into an exact description, is a figure of the artist. Casanova has given up his humanity for art; lovemaking is something he must control and design. As a result, he succeeds in giving pleasure to others, but he can only take pleasure in artifice. Indeed, he himself becomes no more than a created object. Fellini's artist, as portrayed in the figure of Casanova, is the golden bird Yeats once envisioned:

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Like Yeats' bird, Casanova does not relate to the present world. A vast space remains present between audience and screen, an acute consciousness of the gap between the work of art and any possible reality. By keeping us at this distance from the dream which Freud proved to be man's fundamental reality--sex--Fellini captures our sole potentially uninhibited creative fantasy. And then he shows us it is no more than show.