Dangerous Beauty (1998)
Women and Power
Directed by Marshall Herskovitz and released in 1998, Dangerous Beauty is a romance set in Renaissance Venice, with feminist tones, a strong leading lady, and an endless array of beautiful costumes and enchanting Venetian settings. Dangerous Beautyis based on the real Veronica Franco, a sixteenth-century courtesan and influential poet, who has inspired biographies on stage, screen, and print. Despite all the attention Franco has received in the modern age, this cinematic retelling of her life was a bit of a financial flop. Still, though, it has managed to earn consistently strong reviewssince its release just over twenty years ago. It currently holds a respectable 7.3/10 on IMDb and an audience score of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The plot of the movie follows the tomboyish and witty Veronica as she falls in love with a dashing noble, Marco Venier. Enamored of one another but unable to marry because of Veronica’s small dowry and low social standing, they part ways. The heartbroken heroine decides that becoming a courtesan is her only chance at being with Marco, so she enters the world of high-society Venice. She earns devoted patrons and a few enemies, becomes a renowned poet, and even gets her work published—no small feat for a woman of her time. Marco and Veronica embark on an on-again-off-again love affair, but the drama never slows down. Marco leaves to wage war, and in his absence the plague ravages Venice and the Inquisition is summoned to root out heresy from the city. Veronica, having gained enemies with her success, is accused of witchcraft and brought before the Inquisition. Marco, returning from war, comes to her aid, and together they rouse the nobles of the city to spare Veronica. The pair lives happily ever after!
Dangerous Beauty is rooted in some historical accuracy: Franco was indeed a published poet and somewhat controversial figure, she did survive the plague, and she did face the Inquisition. Beyond that, though, the plot dips into dramatization and fabrication to fit into the historical romance genre. The movie’s central romance between Veronica and Marco was greatly exaggerated, as was her rivalry with the movie’s villain, Maffio, and the life-or-death nature of her trial. Marco’s role as the heroine’s reason for becoming a courtesan is perhaps the greatest fabrication in the film, since the real Franco became a courtesan to avoid marriage, pursue an education, and broaden her opportunities. Additionally, the film shows Veronica to have an adversarial relationship with most of the women she encounters, when, in reality, her life was devoted to defending and supporting other women. The importance of Veronica’s writing is also glossed over in the movies—merely a witty poet in the film, she is actually an important literary figure in history, having made a space for women in Venice’s salon culture and inspired a wave of influential female authors. There are plenty more inaccuracies in the film, but most of them are minor. Since the film opens with a title card telling audiences they’re about to watch a true story, greater attention to historical detail might have been warranted. The true-to-life elements of the plot were drawn from the work of Margaret Rosenthal—the academic authority on the life and works of Franco. Rosenthal quite literally wrote the book on Franco: in 1992, she published The Honest Courtesan, an analysis of Franco’s life and work. Rosenthal was brought on as a historical consultant for the film, but was brushed aside for most of the production. Perhaps allowing her a bigger role in the film’s production might have led to a more accurate, more impactful final product.
The most important theme in Dangerous Beautyis, predictably, its meditation on the role of women. The movie was released following the emergence of third-wave feminism in the mid-1990s, perhaps in response to the broadening market for female-led films. The perspectives of women are certainly evident to some degree in the film, but despite the female presence in the inspiration and writing of this movie, Veronica’s character falls short of being any kind of feminist icon. The choice on the filmmakers’ part to reduce her life’s motivation to pursuing a love interest renders her a less complex character, and places her priorities on men instead of her own advancement. Her adversarial, catty treatment of women also undercuts her potential as a progressive character. Interestingly, gender roles tie closely to class and social status throughout the film. The story emphasizes the idea that a rigid class system is destructive not just to the poor, but also the wealthy, particularly women. Veronica, of relatively low social standing, is doomed to end up destitute and alone no matter how high she climbs in her career as a courtesan. Her best friend, of much higher standing, is trapped in the “perpetually inconsequential” state of an unhappy housewife, married off as a political pawn. Even Marco is trapped by the hand of the system, unable to marry Veronica though he loves her.
While the film portrays Franco as an admittedly strong and certainly enchanting character, the trite romantic-period-drama format of the plot and deliberate skimming of Franco’s many historically true achievements undercut its potential, rendering the film less successful than it might otherwise have been. Still, Dangerous Beauty remains an enjoyably rosy tale of star-crossed lovers, girl power, and classic period drama.
Bedford Falls Productions
Distributed by Warner Bros. (North America)
Early Modern Era (c. 1500-1750)
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