Monday, July 25, 2011

Don Juan Demarco. B-

Marlon Brando uses his legend, not his gift for acting, in Don Juan Demarco, a cheerful and diverting fantasy that goes nowhere except for a sort of strange kind of pleasantville. Brando seems completely disengaged with the part of a soon-to-be-retired psychiatrist treating a patient who claims to be Don Juan himself. The complexity that drives Brando's finest characters to timelessness is completely absent here. Like the psychiatrist, he seems just about ready to call it quits. He's an overweight, surprisingly dull doctor who rediscovers the magic of love by listening to the supposed Don Juan's life story. Old folks may get a kick out of his late burst of enthusiasm. Younger viewers will probably groan. Brando doesn't tarnish his career with this role, but he certainly embarrasses it. Gladly, it's not a one man show, as Jeremy Leven's film also has Johnny Depp in the title role, and Depp brings real fervor and enthusiasm and romantic charisma to the legendary Don Juan. Much of the movie is told in flashbacks, as Depp relates his adventures and discovery of the beauty and enchantment of the female-the cause of his legend. Now, you might ask what drew me to this particular film, which, despite its solid cast (Faye Dunaway also has a role as Brando's wife), is a real oddity and rarely even brought up any more. The answer lies in a First Things article by David Bentley Hart titled A Splendid Wickedness. The article, which has the generous length of a fine piece in The New Yorker, explores Don Juan, his origin, development through literature, and ultimate demise in the eyes of the public. The quintessential roué, Don Juan is rarely mentioned, let alone heard of in today's society. Hart states the obvious that this could be due to the fact that Juan is no longer a shocking character due to the casual state in which sexual pleasure is held these days. But there's more, argues Hart. The real reason Juan has vanished is because the degradation of sensual pleasure in modern society. There's beauty to be found in sensual pleasure, a poetic sense of awe and adoration that Don Juan's promiscuity exemplified. This does not condone Juan for his actions. It merely means that he managed to create a collage of pleasure and beauty. He respected his copious lovers, adored them for the satisfaction they gave him and the beauty they represented. He was a complete sinner and never once tried to turn back. He didn't just surrender to hell, but he jumped into its fires in full force. That sense of awe regarding pleasure has been lost. Juan's idea of sensuality was like a field rich with green grass, large tress and flowers. Today, sensuality is like a paved road with potholes. I think what I liked about this movie was that in its flashbacks it brought to life Juan's idea of sensuality, that it's more that just a play thing. Sure, he's more of a romantic swashbuckler type here than the original legend makes him out to be. But the ideas are still there. In one scene Don Juan cannot get himself to love another woman because he's already devoted to another. He wants to, but he has too much respect and love in his heart. He does end up conceding to the other woman, but not without that hesitation. It shows he had a heart. A terrible heart, but a heart nonetheless. Don Juan Demarco is a strange fantasy, wildly uneven and terribly obvious. But to its credit it does manage to produce the truth about the greatness of Don Juan-even if it does not intend to.

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