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Juan, a film by Kaspar Holten [Photo courtesy of official web site]
06 Jul 2011

Juan, a film by Kaspar Holten

I recently got the chance to see Juan, the Kaspar Holten film version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Juan, a film by Kaspar Holten

By Barbara Miller

Above: Juan, a film by Kaspar Holten [Photo courtesy of official web site]


It is indeed an English adaptation, presented here in the US with English subtitles, updated to a modern European city (filmed in Denmark and Hungary). “Juan” lives in a loft, from which he carries on ‘The Woman project’, which is essentially his effort to seduce a zillion women, with his Russian sidekick “Lep” taking clandestine video and stills of the assignations (his famous Catalogue Aria is sung to Elvira with a Macintosh laptop in his hands, the folders of which contain the visual records of the seductions). The film opens at a performance of “Don Giovanni”, where Ottavio introduces Anna to his friend Juan, and the vibes between them lead her to part from her police chief father and fiancé Ottavio after the performance in order to meet Juan in a café. We see a tryst at her house, which is interrupted by the return of the father, who goes after Juan with a gun, which goes off in the struggle, mortally wounding him. The Anna-Ottavio duet is sung as they load the father into the ambulance and ride to the hospital. This is the first of many instances in which characters’ motivations, which are left ambiguous in the opera, are clearly spelt out (people like to argue about whether Anna has been seduced or raped—in our day people assume the former, given the nature of the Don Giovanni archetype, but the 19th century saw it differently).

Lovers of the opera will be disappointed at the many musical cuts. In the first act, I counted the following omitted arias: Masetto’s “Ho, capito”, Elvira’s “Fuggi il traditor”, Anna’s “Or sai chi l’onore” (although the recit is left in, with flashbacks to a passionate lovemaking with Juan all the while she’s telling this story of a rape to the police), Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” (also “Il mio Tesoro” in the second act—he essentially sings the two ensembles in the first act and some recitative) . In the second act there are more cuts—none of the scene between Leporello and Elvira, none of the ensemble in which the characters confront Leporello, nothing of the beating of Masetto (and Zerlina’s “Vedrai carino” is cut). Interestingly, and somewhat annoyingly to me as a woman, it’s always very clear that the three women are completely under Juan’s spell: “La ci darem” takes place in a cab going back to Juan’s loft, and continues in the loft as they take their clothes off and start to have sex, only interrupted by the fact that Elvira has gotten there first; Anna’s retelling of her meeting with Juan speaks to the masculine fear of a woman crying rape after sex that he considered to be consensual; Elvira is as obsessed with him as she is in the opera, becoming a tragic rather than comic character as she drowns herself after singing about half of “Mi tradi”. On the other hand, both Ottavio and Masetto walk when they find out they’ve been deceived by the women: Masetto is clearly sexually drawn to Zerlina while she sings “Batti batti, but he keeps turning away from her, and says “It’s over” to her at the end of it; Ottavio takes Anna’s returned engagement ring and walks out between the recitative and aria sections of “Non mi dir”. It’s not pleasant to see the men portrayed as somehow stronger than the women when it comes to resisting the temptation to be drawn by sex into something that’s going to hurt them. I suppose the director’s argument would be that no human woman has the sexual power that the larger-than-life masculine force of Don Giovanni has.

The supernatural elements are essentially removed: instead of a stone statue coming to life, there is a shadowy hooded figure that Juan keeps seeing at crucial points when he’s behaving exceptionally badly (the killing of Anna’s father, the party at his loft where the first act finale takes place, etc.). There is a sequence where Juan and Lep encounter a street shrine with a photo of the dead police chief—Juan is seeing the shadow figure while he’s making Lep invite the police chief’s picture to dinner. The final trio takes place in a hijacked car in a high speed chase by the police, with an encounter in Juan’s mind between himself and this shadowy figure (who is singing the Commendatore’s part)—the figure turning out to be Juan himself. Needless to say, there’s no final envoi with the characters coming out to say what will happen to them next (The two other couples have broken up, and Elvira’s dead).

The overall rather grainy look of the movie includes many visual statements about what’s going on. The consensus of the people who saw the film with me is that it works well as a movie; captures the “Don Juan” archetype and its impact very well. I would not say that it’s a particularly good introduction to the opera; too many cuts, essentially the director using the opera to tell the story, rather than Mozart doing it through the music. Recitatives are partly sung, partly spoken, and carry much more of the drama than they would in the opera. Maltman acts well and sings well enough (One person heard some intonation problems, but I felt he acquitted himself well, and he certainly looks the part: he is most naked singing “Fin ch’ha dal vino” in the shower, although the sex scenes are quite explicit. There are many closeups of his frequently unshaven face. Elizabeth Futral as Elvira did a nice job with the arias that were left to her (the opening one, which is interrupted by Don Giovanni, and the duet in which he convinces her to go to an assignation elsewhere—in the opera she unknowingly has this tryst with Leporello, in the movie no one ever shows up, leading her to sing the recitative and part of “Mi trade” as she walks down into the river). Mikhail Petrenko as “Lep” was fine, both acting and singing; in some ways I think his character was the most successful and amusing of the updates. Maria Bengtsson as Anna acted well (as did everyone) but her performance of the fiendishly difficult “Non mi dir” didn’t do the music justice, I think. Peter Lodahl as Ottavio and Ludwig Bengtson Lindström as Masetto acted well but didn’t really have enough to sing to judge. Katijya Dragojevic as Zerlina got more to sing than they did, and she did her music justice—it was also absolutely clear that Juan was not seducing a virgin here.

Barbara Miller

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