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Actor Jacques Weber made his directorial debut with this film adaptation of Molieres 1665 play Don Juan. In early 17th-century Spain, the nobleman Don Juan (Weber) and his valet are on the run from two brothers out to seek revenge for the abandonment of his promise to marry their sister, Elvire (Emmanuelle Béart). With no signs of repentance, Don Juan continues his amorous conquests with women he meets along the way (Penélope Cruz, Ariadna Gil) regardless of the consequences.
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Weber's adaptation is very close to the original, in that it is absolutely without sentiment. After all, this is a tale about an atheist and a cynic. Weber doesn't bow to convention or conventionalized religious belief, which is, after all, basic hypocracy, but maintains Moliere's taught line of suspended judgement. This is a story everybody a the time would have understood immediately, and they did: It is the story of an unprincipaled nobleman, sensitive to nobody's feelings but his own, who uses and abuses his lessers for his amusement. Sexual pleasure is included in that, because to a man of that temperament, sex is only a matter of romantic game-playing, and more literary than glandular.
Don Juan is probably a military man, or at least has had the military and martial arts training noble young men received, along with their social manners. His swordsmanship, skill and bravery make him a very formidable and probably deadly adversary. His manner; which is to say, his mananers and deportment, his clothing; everything about him bespeaks rank and caste and position. He is a leader, an 'A' male, and he commands and receives deference wherever he goes, from people accustomed to giving it. He expects hospitality as his right, and simple people feel honored by his presence.
Women, simple, poor women, are tantalized by the prospect of being made love to, or even of being paid attention to, by a man "of the court." In their short, hot youths, followed abruptly and inevitably by their empty lives, whatever scraps of his attention they are able to snatch from him, they will treasure until the grave. And that is why -- and shown so well here -- why they follow him like female canines in season.
All the women in this show are wonderful-looking, strikingly beautiful and very different one from another. Emmanuelle Beart, Penelope Cruz and Ariadna Gil are delicious to look at, and the costume designer (of splendid name) Silvie de Segonzac, has made wonderful dresses for them, of the period. But then, all of the costumes are good, both the men's and the women's, from the hatwear to the ruffs, including the shoes and boots, and wonderfully varied. Include in this rich display of period costuming, a dwarf's livry. (But then this wonderful movie like watching a Valesquez come to life, and what would a Velasquez be without at least one dwarf?) There was even a blackamoor, but he was asleep.
The Don Juan plot or story is easy enough, and most people know it well enough, either through Opera, or stage plays. And the descrptions given by the Amazonian reviewers are excellent and well observed, so there's no need to go on at length about that. What there is to on about is the director's wonderful pictorial judgement and taste. In a time of cinematic miracles that can and often do boggle the mind, Weber has chosen to avoid all of them, and to rely on nothing, no trick of light or sound or movement, no technical effect, that can distract even the tiniest but from the impetus of this most fascinating of character-driven stories. D. Jose Luis Alcaine, cinematographer, is a genius. The pictoral composition is of the highest quality; rich in color, filled with detail, both of landscape, of seascape, light, darkness and clouds, and always perfectly framed. That composition and the cinematographer's art, generally, become increasingly complex in group scenes, and camera movement becomes more dynamic, but these crowd scene compositions are never stagy or stale.
And yet, people ask, is Don Juan sexy? He is fat, old, and gray-haired. Well, when Henry Kissinger was in the White House, the media often called him the notoriously sexy and very mysterious Mister Kissinger, suggesting that women fell into his bed as easily and as often as babies fall into backyard swimming pools in Phoenix. Somebody observed, however, that there is nothing quite as sexy or attractive or maybe just arousing, as Power. And that's the secret. It's a secret fat men and old men and even men with white hair know perfectly well, and have always known how to use. Youthful athleticism is all very well and good, in its way, but power fascinates and stimulates most, or at least, many women, as most mature men know. One night in Hollywood is enough to nail that down, even for tourists.
And then there is Spain. Spain, the un-credited supporting star of this film. What a landscape! When the Moors held it the peninsula was a verdant garden of abundance. But when the Spanish drove them out and took it over, the peninsula became in little time, a parched garden where hungry peasants plowed stones. Tragedy, the tragedy of poverty, is written in every mile, on the crest of every treeless hill. What better background before which to act out the sterile self-indulgences of an empty, childness, heartless and diseased, narcissistic fool?
Jacques Weber not only carefully adapted the Moliere play, he also directs and stars (as Don Juan) in this cinema verita version. No dawdling with the feminine conquests here, this Don Juan is a may on the run, trying to avoid retribution for the scandals he causes. Weber is older, white haired, rotund, and in general does not have the physical appearance one would expect from the man who could conquer the hearts of thousands of women. This crystallizes the amoral life and mind of a man who cares for nothing except self-gratification at the expense of others. He does not believe in God, In the heaven/hell concept, he really doesn't think beyond lust and domination.
Accompanying Don Juan on his travels is his loyal servant Sganarelle (Michel Boujenah), the character who Mozart named Leparello, who does not condone his master's behavior and is constantly warning him of the inevitable outcome of his lifestyle. As the film opens Don Juan and Sganarelle, accompanied by an entourage of gentlemen, are on the run from the wrath of the brother of his last conquest Elvire (Emmanuelle Béart). In his attempt to escape by sea his ship is sunk, only to be saved by a peasant Pierrot (Denis Lavant) who takes the ailing Juan and the remainder of his entourage to safety. In the camp Don Juan recovers only to find is lustful eye resting on two women - Mathurine (Penélope Cruz) and Pierot's betrothed Charlotte (Ariadna Gil) - and creates enough havoc that he must flee the camp promising he will return and marry them.
Elvire's brothers eventually discover him on the run, a duel ensues, and the Don begins to see and hear ruminations of his downfall in the form of a statue of a Commander he had killed. The ending is know to all but the manner in which Weber pauses for Don Juan's introspection before his fate makes the old scoundrel more understandable.
The cast is excellent but not as fine as the costumes and scenery that are so well created they steel the film. The musical score rings true to the flavors of the 17th Century and enhances the mood of the story. Weber as Don Juan is an acquired taste, but whether he fits your vision of a man who can have every woman he desires or whether the viewer can re-think the lothario at the end of his time on earth, he is still a very interesting character and explains why we resurrect his story time and again. Not a film for everyone, but certainly a solid piece of theater. In French with English subtitles. Grady Harp, June 05
My favorite sequence is the village party. It is as if a painting came to life. The vivid colors and the vibrant music really indulge your senses.