Don Juan (1998)

“Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice.”

The legend of Don Juan makes fascinating fodder for fiction and cinema, and this French production, directed by Jacques Weber is an excellent version of the tale. Don Juan is set in seventeenth century Spain, and when the film begins, Don Juan (Jacques Weber) and his loyal, long-suffering valet Sganarelle (Michel Boujenah) are traveling across Spain. In pursuit are the revenge-driven brothers of Don Juan’s latest victim, Dona Elvira (Emmanuelle Beart). Elvira was, apparently, convent-bound when Don Juan seduced and abandoned her. Elvira tracks Don Juan and confronts him, and when he coldly dismisses her, she curses him.

After abandoning Dona Elvira, Don Juan sets out by boat to kidnap a beautiful girl he’s noticed, but when he’s shipwrecked, he instead contents himself with seducing two peasant women. This part of the film is the lightest sequence, and Don Juan manages to juggle Mathurine (Penelope Cruz) and Charlotte (Adriana Gil) by promising to marry both of them. Sganarelle witnesses his master’s actions, and while he doesn’t approve and tries to warn the women, he doesn’t want to jeopardize his position with Don Juan.

The film’s focus is on Don Juan’s moral corruption. This version of the legend presents Don Juan as a middle-aged, corpulent, and repugnant individual who callously rejects and discards the women he seduces. He is an embarrassment to his class, and he is unabashedly unapologetic for his actions. There are no niceties about Don Juan, and neither, perhaps surprisingly, are there any scenes of sex. The story presents Don Juan at the close of his promiscuous career, and his physical condition seems to be the end result of a life of self-indulgence and debauchery.

Seducers understand women, and while many legendary seducers can be accused of ‘loving’ too many women (Casanova, for example), this cannot be said of the film’s depiction of Don Juan. To him, seduction is a mental exercise–a game to be played only once with a woman who catches his fancy. After seduction “the best of passion is spent”, and it’s time to move on. There’s a viciousness to the pleasure he gains from his actions: “spite kindled by desire.” Don Juan’s moral decay is complete when he slides into hypocrisy in the final stage, and much to Sganarelle’s dismay, hypocrisy debases Don Juan even further. Don Juan’s speeches yield much food for thought, and like all good French films, Don Juan continues to evoke thought long after its conclusion. In French with English subtitles.

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Filed under France, Period Piece

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