SIFF “Face The Music” previews: Juan

A roiling, cantankerous, licentious, modern introduction to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Juan follows a compulsive seducer who enlists a friend to help him capture his conquests on digital film, as the law, angry mates of lovers, and other adversaries move in to stop his habitual rampage of romance. Shot with lean special effects but still gorgeous, Danish opera director Kasper Holten’s film debut is a great way to get to know the appeal of opera music.

Festival screenings:

May 31, 2011, at 7:00 PM at the Neptune Theatre
June 3, 2011, at 4:30 PM at the Neptune Theatre
June 5, 2011, at 6:00 PM at the Admiral Theatre

You might be wondering why this contemporary adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is both sung in English and has English subtitles. My guess is that director Kasper Holten wanted to make sure American opera neophytes can follow exactly what’s going on with the sonorous but sleazy tale of a male slut’s conquests of weak-willed ladies of all type for his “Woman Project.” Musically, it succeeds quite well, showcasing the passion and elegance of Mozart’s vocal compositions along with the lovely music performed by Concerto Copenhagen, led by Lars Ulrik Mortensen on conductor’s baton.

Even though this is Holten’s debut as a filmmaker (!) — though he is famous for his take on the Copenhagen Ring for the Royal Danish Opera — Juan is a cleverly but not obstructively retelling of the sexually driven Don, played with a keen slither by Christopher Maltman. His lanky Russian sidekick (Mikhail Petrenko) videotapes all his seductions, but doesn’t refrain from criticizing his employer-friend (it isn’t quite clear if he’s the latter) when he feels squeamish at Juan’s flagrant disregard for ethics or legality. Lines in the libretto are changed to reflect receiving emails and cell phones as a prominent part of the twisted romances weaving throughout the plot; the updates are kind of funny but don’t enervate either the sensual fury or the fierce cruelty Juan is capable of. Of special note is a “Catch Me If You Can” t-shirt worn by one of the men who are betrayed by his fiance. Still, the beauty and emotion of actresses like Elizabeth Futral and Katja Dragojevic keep your eyes riveted to the screen, not allowing modern details to get in the way of the story.

If it weren’t for the death of a lover’s father at the start of the film, and then an actual brutal murder of someone else near the end, this material about wounded lovers and broken hearts would seem needlessly melodramatic. The darkness of Eros and rippling pacing has made some recall Black Swan, but the movie’s spirit of savage rampage actually reminds me of Mike Leigh’s Naked. It’s one guy’s loins against the world, the film beginning in a violent maelstrom and never letting up with the emotional torture. Just when you think the fire of spurned women will consume Juan and his helpmate, he turns the tables, and they end up drowning in an either real or metaphorical sense. Aside from a little melodic redundancy (opera can really drive a point home) and a few scenes without much detail besides the heads of those singing the lines, this might be the best way for music fans to first experience a movie based on an opera. You sure can’t deny the ability of the subject matter to hold your attention.

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