Federico Fellini's renowned directing touch seemed shakier after "Casanova," an overlong, erratic portrait of the legendary lover.
Donald Sutherland is the unlikely star, and the problems start there. Not only is his familiar growl overdubbed with a harsh Italian voice (disorienting, to say the least), but his androgynous persona is near laughable. With his powdered complexion, lined eyes and shaved hairline, he looks less like a womanizer than a cold-creamed housewife on her way to bed. Meanwhile, his vivid, frilly outfits are often ridiculous, and the wispy half-shirt and bloomers he wears underneath -- while probably period-accurate? -- are downright girlish. It's a creepy characterization. Then again, the film won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, so others obviously appreciated these excesses.
Like many Fellini movies, "Casanova" is a series of intricate set pieces rather than a linear story, but the action seems more repetitive this time. Seduction scenes dominate, naturally, but the couplings are shot in such a crass, exaggerated way -- from the woman's perspective, as Casanova slams into her from above as if pedaling on an exercise bike -- that the sex is totally unappealing. Perhaps this is the point. We aren't meant to admire this shallow rogue who boasts about his virility, pathetically grovels for acceptance as a scholar and swoons lovestruck hyperboles whenever he happens to meet a beautiful woman.
Otherwise, the inevitable highlights are the festival settings, where Fellini's visual imagination runs amok with his usual, bacchanalian genius. An early scene with a giant, carved head emerging from a canal is dazzling. A chaotic orgy that suggests an earthquake is delightful insanity, as is a musical segment where multiple keyboards haphazardly feed a single organ's cacophony. There's also a homoerotic operetta (an interesting test for composer Nino Rota), a walk-in whale carcass marketed like a circus sideshow and a seven-foot woman who wrestles doomed male challengers (as if that weren't enough, her handlers are midgets). Casanova also woos a humpbacked woman and a delicate, life-sized robot. On a more subtle level, his eventual decline is exquisitely symbolized by the aftermath of an opera, where the emptied house leaves him alone on the bare floor as the chandeliers are lowered and systematically fanned out by the crew. Another clever metaphor is the toy bird that repeatedly stretches and chirps during his bedroom romps.
"Casanova" is a strange mix of realism and theater, as elaborate sets clash with obviously faked buggy rides and a sequence where a stormy ocean is simulated with rippling plastic tarps. The chronology sloppily jumps around -- the story is initially told via flashbacks as a jailed Casanova contemplates his life, but this structure is soon abandoned -- and women who enter the plot as pivotal characters are discarded minutes later without ceremony. Nothing hangs together as smoothly as it should. Casanova turns a bit more sympathetic near the end as he ages and is humbled to become a modest estate librarian, but the film's imagery remains far more affecting than its human insights.