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Dangerous Beauty

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The other night, Kam and I watched the 1998 movie Dangerous Beauty.

I had seen it before, in 1999; Kam hadn't. It may be revealing of something about me that the only things I thought I remembered about it were that it was set in the 1700s and that there's a woman who uses a sword in it.

Turns out that it's actually set in late-16th-century Venice (contemporaneous with Shakespeare), and it's about a young woman whose mother trains her to be a courtesan.

The movie is loosely derived from the 1992 nonfiction book The Honest Courtesan, by Margaret F. Rosenthal, a biography and literary critique of courtesan and poet Veronica Franco. My understanding (based on the movie, on Wikipedia, and on looking at a few bits of the book, so I may be wrong) is that in Venice at that time, the upper-class courtesans were widely (though not universally) respected and had a great deal of freedom that most women in other walks of life (including the lower-class prostitutes) didn't have.

The movie is a romance, and my understanding is that it takes enormous liberties with its source material. Despite its claim to be a true story, it's definitely historical fiction.

But in my opinion, it's excellent historical fiction.

I think it does a really good job of portraying both a trap that many women have found themselves in in many times and places (including the societal requirements to be subservient and uneducated and unempowered), and one way that some women in that particular time and place managed to, in some ways, partially escape that trap, at a cost. It does somewhat romanticize the profession of courtesan (something that Rosenthal explicitly attempts to avoid in the book), but it also takes steps to undermine that romanticizing.

It's also witty, funny, and romantic. It stars Catherine McCormack as Franco and Rufus Sewell as her would-be lover. There is a great deal of kissing, and watching Rufus Sewell kissing people (or doing just about anything else) is pretty much enough to get me to like a movie. (He's so dreamy!) So if that were all this movie had going for it, it would have been enough for me. (That aspect was insufficient for Kam's enjoyment, though; some people somehow fail to share my appreciation of Mr. Sewell's dreaminess.)

But it also features Oliver Platt, Naomi Watts, and Jacqueline Bisset. And poetry duels. And war, and plague, and smart, feminist social commentary. And, yes, a scene in which a woman wields a sword.

Aspects of it made me sad and angry (about ways women have been treated in real life, not about the movie); other aspects made me laugh. It is perhaps a little slow-paced for some tastes, especially at the start, but well worth watching.

I think it would probably make a good double feature with Shakespeare in Love. Set around the same time; very different emphasis, but both are excellent funny feminist romances with swordplay, discussions of gender roles, and hot male leads. What more could one want?

But regardless of any double features, the movie works well on its own. Highly recommended.

(There are probably politically problematic aspects of its handling of various things, including prostitution; I make no claim that it's a perfect movie. But what it does, it does excellently well.)

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