Dangerous Beauty (review)

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In the Company of Men

“What do women want?” Freud wanted to know. Why doesn’t anyone ask, What do men want? Men can be just as bizarre and contradictory as women can be, as is superbly depicted in the funny and sexy Dangerous Beauty.

The setting is Venice, 1583, a world where marriage is a business contract and true love is a dangerous game. Young and beautiful Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) falls in love with young and beautiful Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell, from Dark City). They cannot marry — she is beneath his family’s station and wealth — but her mother, Paola (Jacqueline Bisset), suggests an alternative way to have him. Veronica can become a courtesan — a high-priced prostitute — as her mother announces she herself used to be.
Veronica is wary at first, but as Paola reveals the courtesan’s secrets, the girl grows more intrigued. “Courtesans are the most educated women in the world,” Paola tells her, showing her a library reserved for gentlemen and courtesans — ladies are forbidden — and this finally sells the strong-willed, spirited, and intelligent Veronica on the idea. Paola, of course, shares with Veronica the more intimate lessons a courtesan needs to learn, transforming her from a blushing, virginal girl to a worldly wise woman.

She’s a hit immediately with the kind of men who vie for the companionship of such women — women who, Paola explains, seduce with their minds even more than with their bodies. Veronica’s new friends are government ministers, cardinals, senators: men of power and wealth who are delighted with her wit as well as with her beauty.

The need in this society for courtesans is demonstrated by a scene between Marco and his new wife, a woman befitting his station, a niece of the pope whom he hardly knows. On their wedding night, his wife sits primly at the edge of their bed, and he tries to get her to open up, to reveal herself to him: “Tell me a secret,” he says, to which she replies demurely, “I have no secrets.” “Then tell me a desire,” he says, getting frustrated. But her only desires are to be a good wife to him and give him many sons. With women like this — uneducated and uncomplicated, meek and submissive — the only ones considered suitable as wives, men looking for intellectual stimulation to go with the sexual kind turned to courtesans, who were “not good, not pure, not meek,” according to Veronica.

But Dangerous Beauty, for all the freedoms it shows the courtesans enjoyed, doesn’t sugarcoat reality. “Love love, but do not love the man,” warns Paola of the emotional danger courtesans faced, “or you’ll be in his power.” Physical danger was also a worry: clients could turn violently jealous.

But the biggest danger was from men’s paradoxical fear of the very women they most desired. When Venice’s fortunes turn and the city is plagued by war and disease, the courtesans are a natural target — God, it is believed, must be punishing the city for their immorality. Now, the same men of government and religion who formerly enjoyed her company condemn Veronica, denounce her as a witch.

Veronica is bewitching — though there’s nothing supernatural about it — and she puts all her powers of intellect and beauty to bear yet again, to solve just the latest of her problems. A gorgeous film, Dangerous Beauty is a shrewd, droll look at women who use men’s lust for their own benefit.

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