Dangerous Beauty is a 1998 film based on the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal. It’s a biographical piece about the life of Veronica Franco (played by Catherine McCormack, who turns in an exquisite performance), who was a courtesan and poet in 16th century Venice. The movie had a very limited release at first, and even when it went into a broader release, it didn’t get a lot of attention or make much money.
It’s a film that provides plenty for a feminist movie lover to both love and hate. On the one hand, it depicts a rather Disneyesque, fairytale view of the institution of prostitution, rather like a more modern, and much better known movie, Pretty Woman. The male clients are charming and good looking, and the courtesans are not only appreciated for their beauty and skills in bed, but also for their talent, intelligence, and wit.
On the other hand, the movie clearly demonstrates the role of women as chattel, sold off in marriage contracts to old, rich men, if they’re lucky. Working at hard labor if they’re not. Late in the movie, in a short, but moving speech, Veronica’s friend Beatrice (Moira Kelley) pleads with Veronica to teach her daughter to be a courtesan when she’s old enough.
Beatrice has already seen her very young daughter being taught that a woman should have no voice. At the end she says, of the life her daughter will be expected to lead, “And when she dies, she’ll wonder why she obeyed all the rules of God and Country, for no biblical Hell could ever be worse than a state of perpetual inconsequence.”
But what I love so much very about Dangerous Beauty, and why it’s worth watching at least once, is how utterly beautiful it is. It’s one of the most visually sumptuous movies I’ve seen. The lighting is magical, the people are pretty, the costumes are fabulous, the sets are breathtaking. And then the score by George Fenton perfectly supports and reflects the visual splendor.
On the topic of pretty people, Jacqueline Bisset as Paola Franco, Veronica’s mother, lights up the screen. If anything, at the age of 54, she is more stunningly beautiful than ever. My biggest disappointment with the film is that she doesn’t have a larger role, because I could watch her, and listen to her talk, all day.
As with most really good films, the rest of the cast help elevate Dangerous Beauty to the best it can be. Rufus Sewell is handsome and believable as Marco, the man Veronica loves. Naomi Watts has a very small part as Marco’s wife, but gives a wonderful, understated performance. Oliver Platt is at turns amusing, then villainous, as Marco’s resentful, jealous cousin. And Fred Ward is dashing and charming as the uncle.
If anything mars the perfection of the movie, it could be said it’s the final long scene, in which Veronica faces the Inquisition. It’s over the top, and highly improbable in terms of historical accuracy. Yet still, it’s uplifting and moving anyway.
The final biographical notes at the end of the movie make it sound like the rest of Veronica’s life was a storybook affair, which fits the tone of the movie and provides a feel-good experience for movie-goers. But in fact, Veronica died, impoverished, at only 45 years of age.