John Malkovich is the human equivalent of Marmite: You either love him or hate him. The creators of “The Giacomo Variations,” a touring “chamber opera play,” are firmly in the former camp, having crafted a postmodern stage piece around the actor embodying himself and Giacomo Casanova, melded into various Lorenzo da Ponte characters from Mozart’s operas. It’s clever as a concept, with obvious Don Giovanni-Casanova parallels, yet “Casanova Variations,” the film adaptation by the play’s author, Michael Sturminger, is so full of its own forced charm that only diehard Marmite fans, like producers Paulo Branco and Ulrich Seidl, will feel enriched. Europe will be more welcoming than the States.
Since audiences are meant to get the in-jokes, it helps if viewers are conversant not just with the Mozart operas and Casanova’s memoir “Histoire de ma vie,” but also “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Being John Malkovich.” It’s distinctly unhelpful, however, if the same viewers are also familiar with Ettore Scola’s “La nuit de Varennes” and “Fellini’s Casanova,” two films considerably more attuned to the great lover’s seductive aura as well as his deep melancholy (and far less pleased with themselves). Knowing Ingmar Bergman’s “The Magic Flute” also places “Casanova Variations” at a disadvantage, since shots of a bemused audience in the current film feel like pale imitations of the Swedish maestro’s classic.
But enough with show-off comparisons, even if this film’s constant tongue-in-cheek referentiality encourages, if not demands, such associations. Soon after the onscreen audience enters Lisbon’s Sao Carlos opera house, Malkovich, on stage as Casanova, declares, “I need variation. I require variation” (accounting, perhaps, for his frequent accent variations throughout the performance). Casanova, living his final years as private librarian to a Bohemian nobleman, is visited by Elisa von der Recke (Veronica Ferres), who wants the rights to publish the famed libertine’s autobiography. Could Elisa be the mature version of a young woman he once seduced and abandoned?
Casanova has a singing doppelganger (baritone Florian Boesch), just as Elisa has her own operatic avatar (soprano Miah Persson); it would have been better overall had the warbling been left only to the professionals. Arias from “Cosi fan tutte,” “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” are woven through Casanova’s story, informing (though rarely truly commenting on) the famed roue’s past with besotted nubile teens, bitter discarded matrons and contented noblewomen. One moment Malkovich, as Casanova, speaks of love, and next a soprano emerges from his dressing gown delivering the aria “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” from “Figaro.”
That’s just two narrative planes: There’s also the stratum of Malkovich as himself, playing Casanova on stage. Naturally, the actor is every bit as bewitching to the opposite sex as the character he plays; a script girl backstage reveals she’s seen “Dangerous Liaisons” 50 times. “You were my sexual awakening,” she gushes, before following it up with “You’re not gay, are you?” Yes, “Variations” has humor, and it also has some delightful moments, largely thanks to the cast of opera professionals and Mozart’s eternal music.
Yet aside from the oh-so-clever elisions and wink-wink it’s-Malkovich-playing-himself-playing-Valmont-playing-Casanova-playing-Don-Giovanni, is “Casanova Variations” really saying anything? Sturminger, who certainly knows his Mozart, states that one of his aims is to play with the idea of freedom and class, and while both Casanova and Mozart felt friction between their non-noble heritage and their roles as entertainers (and seducers) of the aristocracy, the film is too much of an amuse-bouche to make pointed statements on the subject. In addition, the seriousness of “Don Giovanni,” not to mention the terror-filled finale and the genuine emotional tug of the women he abandoned, is lost in the game Sturminger plays.
Anticipating criticism, the writer-helmer includes an admittedly hilarious moment between acts, when Malkovich meets Jessica (Tracy-Ann Oberman), a potential backer for a film version of the play. “I can’t believe you thought I’d want to produce this as a movie,” she snidely remarks, no doubt echoing some real producers before funding came together. Oberman’s appearance causes more of a frisson than Fanny Ardant, in a brief role as the mother of one of Casanova’s more problematic conquests.
Noted d.p. Andre Szankowski helps to make it all look pretty, though the handheld lensing is overused, and the editing can feel lax. Costumes are sumptuous, but production design occasionally seems to be channeling a boutique hotel in Colonial Williamsburg. At least there are the glories of Mozart — but unfortunately, even that’s marred by Malkovich’s cascade of words intruding on beautiful recitatives.