Dangerous Beauty (1998) is known among those who study historical costume as the pinnacle of shlock. It took the true life story of Veronica Franco, famed courtesan of Renaissance Venice, and turned it into a Harlequin romance. And most importantly, it spawned a million “courtesan gown” knock-offs that will forever haunt the Internet, Renaissance faires, and more. But is it really SO bad? In honor of Snark Week, let’s reconsider the costumes in Dangerous Beauty.
Now, I’m not going to argue that the movie is GOOD. It’s entertaining if you have a HIGH TOLERANCE for shlock, cheese, and general ludicrousness. If you can handle dialogue like this, please do sign up: “You … all of you … you who hunger so for what I give, but cannot bear to see such power in a woman. You call God’s greatest gift … ourselves, our yearning, our need to love … you call it filth and sin and heresy.”
We tried to podcast about this movie, but Trystan and Sarah couldn’t get through the shlock. So, they may snark me here, too, when I try to analyze the costumes!
The film is loosely based on the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal. It would have to be loosely, because that book is DENSE. I may play a Venetian courtesan, and I may love history, but even I couldn’t get through that book. It’s very much a rhetorical analysis of Franco’s writings, not a biography.
It sounds like the film went through Development Hell in getting made. Rufus Sewell (who played lead hottie Marco) has been quoted multiple times essentially saying, “I didn’t sign up for this shlock.” The film changed titles many times and was delayed almost a year from its expected release date, both of which can spell trouble.
The problem may stem in part from the director, Marshall Herskovitz, who was previously known for directing the TV show Thirtysomething:
I learned that what we define as luxurious is not what people living during the Renaissance defined as luxurious. And I realized very early on that we would have to use a bit of a slight of hand. I remember sitting with my department heads and saying that we have to give a modern audience the experience of what it would have been like to live then. If we showed the audience exactly what it was like to live then, they wouldn’t have that experience. If you look at the actual furniture people sat on, the rooms they lived in, or the clothes they wore, you wouldn’t think that they are sumptuous or comfortable. A lot of the discussions we had in planning the film were about how you tweak historical specifics so that it makes sense for a more modern audience. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.
Worse, he echoes the Outlander controversy by saying,
Venice was the pinnacle of 1500’s civilization, Herskovitz explained, “But when we look at the details of their lives, we are struck by the fact that the didn’t bathe, their clothes were filthy, they had skin diseases, they wore a half-inch of makeup, and their furniture was ugly and uncomfortable.”
Part of his job as a filmmaker, he stated, is to help a modern audience see Venice as the people of the time did, “so there is a sense in which the film is intentionally glamorized or beautified or even abstracted from real life because I wanted to give an experience to an audience.” — SPLICEDwire
Obviously, if the director isn’t terribly committed to the historical period, and in fact believes that the historical period is kind of crappy, you’re going to get a tweaked vision — and maybe not for the better. Herskovitz also says,
… I was telling what I felt to be a thematic story, a poetic story, a story about the human spirit. I wasn’t necessarily telling the true history of Veronica Franco. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.
Which, yes. But. Given the result, SOMEBODY clearly wasn’t too thrilled with the true history of Veronica Franco.
Now, let’s talk costumes. They were designed by Gabriella Pescucci, an Italian designer known for The Name of the Rose, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Age of Innocence, Van Helsing, and Showtime’s The Borgias. So, clearly she’s got a big resume, and she knows her stuff. Just think of the gorgeousness and historical accuracy of The Age of Innocence, and you know we’re not dealing with a hack here.
The main problem, costume-wise, are the “courtesan” outfits. Instead of putting the actresses into what they SHOULD be wearing, which are gorgeously sumptuous outfits that looked just like any other upper-class woman, we get these:
Yeesh. So, what happened? Yeah, you guessed it:
Gabriella [Gabriella Pescucci, costume designer] and I debated extensively about the costumes. When I first saw the designs for the courtesan’s outfits, they were utterly boring and unsexy. In fact, they looked just liked the wives’ outfits, but in red instead of black. They were heavy wool dresses that came up to here [the neck]. I thought back to all these paintings from the Renaissance with half-naked courtesans in Grecian dresses. So, I said to Gabriella, “what about the Grecian dresses?” and she said, “Oh, no, those are mythological; they didn’t exist; the women never wore them in public.” Eventually, I had to force her to create a hybrid between what was in the paintings and what they actually would have worn. What she came up with was not historically accurate but was brilliant and beautiful. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.
Now, I will point out that the sumptuous, ornate costumes worn by upper class Venetian women, courtesan and married alike, were not nun’s habits.
By now, you probably have your head in your hands, saying, “But Kendra, how can this be redeemed? Those look NOTHING like real Venetian Renaissance gowns! And there was no such thing as a special ‘courtesan’ uniform! Haven’t you seen the bad knock-offs? WHERE IS THE HUMANITY?”
To which I say, “shhh, young Padawan. I know, I know. I too have witnessed the horrors of the shitty Jo-Ann’s Casa Collection being used for nefarious purposes, the off-the-shoulder chemises, the open-front skirts giving us a horrified glimpse of areas that should never be seen. Bite down on this leather strap.”
And, take a look at this:
So, historically accurate? No. Pretty? Yes. Smoking crack? Well, depends on your perspective, but Pescucci was clearly working from SOMETHING.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the rest of the costumes in the film. I know, you’re still reeling. You still want me to hold you. But I’m going to make you. Let’s look past the smack-you-in-the-face-pretty-slut-costumes and take a look at what else was going on in the movie, women’s costume-wise. (I can only really talk out of my butt when it comes to boy clothes.) You can sit on my lap while we do this.
So. Yeah. The costumes really aren’t the travesty that you remember. I think we’re all scarred by the fact that so many people came away thinking “there’s a specific Courtesan Outfit,” and the bad knock-offs, and the shlocktastic-ness of the story, script, and approach.
But can you really argue that Pescucci’s costumes are total crap? I would say, no!
I am, however, going to leave you with one more shot of that makeup and hair. Because I’m mean like that.
Interested in learning more about Venetian costumes in the 16th century? Head over to the Realm of Venus.