World famous lover Giacomo Casanova (Donald Sutherland) is rowing out to an island one night with the promise of a nun who finds him irresistible at the end of his journey. When he reaches his destination, the nun is ready and waiting but points out that the man she is having an affair with, the French ambassador, will be watching the action through a hole in the wall; ever the exhibitionist, Casanova has no problem with that and launches into his routine. Once he's finished he tries to point out to the Peeping Tom that there's a lot more to him than his love life, as he likes to think he is an educated man whose opinions are worth listening to, but the spy isn't interested. And on the journey back, Casanova is caught by the authorities who claim he is in possession of banned literature...
For a film based on the exploits of the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Lover, this adaptation of his memoirs from director Federico Fellini and his co-writer Bernardino Zapponi is a curiously maudlin experience, as instead of creating a work of dizzying eroticism they have made their protagonist's life seem an empty, lonely existence which could never be satisfied by what he craved the most: the company of women. In fact, any nods towards inflaming the passions of the audience are few and far between, and muted ones at that as there's hardly any nudity and the sex scenes, while prevalent, are played up to be grotesque.
What this Casanova does have in its favour is the amount of money thrown at it, it genuinely looks lavish and extravagant, so much so that Sutherland's performance gets a little lost in the opulence. If you like a film to lay riches before you, then it's all here, from a multitude of chandeliers being lowered from an opera house ceiling for their candles to be extinguished, to a vast hall that features a wall of pipe organs which all get played at once. In amongst all this Casanova seduces the ladies he encounters, but after a while you wonder if he's not more the seduced as his reputation goes before him and widepsread curiosity is awakened.
As with most of Fellini's films of this latter period, the one thing that stands out is, of course, the terrible dubbing. No, but seriously, the one thing that stands out is the surreal atmosphere which ranges from dreamlike, as the opening sequence set at a celebration where a huge, wooden woman's head is raised from the depths of the sea, to the nightmarish, as when Casanova is the only man at an orgy and is basically shagged senseless by a number of women in a tall wooden bed that jolts around the room alarmingly. The plotline is naturally episodic, where one minute our hero is almost running over his brother in a horsedrawn carriage and the next he's met the love of his life.
She is Henriette (Tina Aumont), who he meets in France, but considering she makes such an impression on him she doesn't hang about, only appearing for about fifteen minutes of the over two and a half hours' running time. Does she represent the ideal woman who Casanova needs but can never have? His final conquest is not even human, it's a life-sized, clockwork marionette who he pathetically seduces for the almost climactic scene before he dwindles into a macaroni-obsessed librarian with nothing but memories and no friends, never mind lovers, to keep him company. Along the way have been among others a giantess (who beats him at arm wrestling) and a sickly, constantly collapsing young seamstress who perks up at his attentions, but have any of them fulfilled him? Has he wasted his life? What is there to be gained from his title? Music by Nino Rota.