Venus-Pluto “Dangerous Beauty”
Ever wonder what would happen if Venus, the goddess of love and sex, set up shop in one of the most Catholic cities in Medieval Europe? Although Dangerous Beauty (titled A Destiny of her Own outside of the U.S.), is not literally about the Roman goddess of love and lust, her influence weaves itself throughout this film.
Based upon the book by Margaret Rosenthal, which chronicles the true story of a Rennaissance courtesan named Veronica Franco, the film’s true star is really the city of Venice — named after the Roman deity — and its tale of the paradoxical existence within which its women lived during the late 1500s. In wonderfully cinematographed images, the city is cleaned up, its citizens given proper hygiene, and glamorized so as to appear worthy of the city’s namesake. Despite such a seemingly fertile ground for beauty and love, Veronica — played elegantly by Catherine McCormack — extemporizes on the repressed sexual atmosphere of the city: “Venice, her wisdom shines bright as day/Her wives like booty are locked away.”
What is depicted so eloquently in this film is a very traditional city who gives birth to and allows to flourish its sexual nature, but only insofar as it can deny and hide it. Thus we find Venus allowed to operate and perceived only within Pluto’s realms of prostitution, power, secrecy, revenge, obsessive love and even witchcraft. As in the American title, references of Venus’ Plutonic nature abound: “Is my beauty cruel?” asks Veronica of Marco, the lover that is forced by tradition and money to reject her. After marrying a very pious but dispassionate woman by arrangement, Marco seeks some of that Pluto associated with Veronica from his wife by asking her for a “secret, deep desire”. This archetype reaches a crescendo toward the end of the film when Veronica has to tame the brooding, violent, and tormented King Henry of France. And when her beauty is purported to bewitch men, the Inquisition claims “she’s a witch, the devil in our midst”.
Veronica’s character is archetypally very rich because she not only embodies the romance, beauty, and open lustiness of the love goddess, but she also embodies the wit, youth, charm, freedom and intellectual capacity of Mercury. And like the good psychopomp, Veronica is not only allowed to live within the secretive pleasure domes allocated to Venus in the city renown for its courtesans, but she also brings that world to light by writing and speaking publicly about it. The Mercury part of her character is in fact what draws her to the life of a prostitute because as her mother informs her, “courtesans are the most educated women in the world.” Later in a more poignant mercurial scene, Veronica is brought to give news of the war to the orthodox women of Venice and lets them know that “a woman’s greatest and hard won asset is an education” and that “promiscuity of the mind leads to promiscuity of the body.”
Veronica sees herself not as “Venus come to bless the Venetians”, but as “Poetess to Kings”. In fact the issue of education as guarantor of freedom was paramount to the real Veronica Franco who, as Speroni tells us, suggested that “the most wretched level of experience is achieved when an individual is not only made subject to the desires of another, but left without the freedom of choice.” Echoing the frustration derived from a lack of freedom, Marco’s sister says in one of the films’ best lines: “No Biblical hell could ever be worse than the state of perpetual inconsequence.”
Marco Venier, played by Rufus Sewell, is Veronica’s unobtainable love interest. There are aspects of Marco that are archetypally very solar in that he is the hero of the story and has a certain stature as senator of the town. But the relationship between he and Veronica is much more reminiscent of the mythical dynamic between Venus and Mars. Mars, whom you’ll recall as the virile god of war, had an illicit affair with the married Venus and their relationship was characterized by a high degree of passion made all the more explosive by the fact that they were not allowed to be together.
Although the Greek Ares was not well-liked, Mars was the patriarch of Rome and held in high esteem by his people, much like Marco is in Venice. Furthermore, Marco engages in several fights in this film: he has his own personal anger and jealousies to dominate when he learns that his beloved sleeps with other men for a living; he has a literal war to go to with the Turks; and he returns from battle to fight the Inquisition in court when they threaten to execute Veronica. Thus, while not making Marco a one-dimensional angry Mars character, this film does establish within Marco the connection between sex and aggression which is so characteristic of Mars symbolism. Ironically, while in the mythology Venus tames Mars’ assertive nature, Veronica demands that Marco use it early in the film to defend his love for her and to stand up to social expectations and tradition. He does not do this until the end of the film when the stakes have become so high that not to defend his truth can have tragic repercussions.
The matter of truth is brought to a head by the dark Jovian character, Maffio Venier, Marco’s jealous cousin. His conflicted Jupiter is demonstrated as a desire for literary success and envy of Veronica’s patronage when her poetry book is published by his uncle and not his. His hatred toward Veronica turns into a much more sinister moralistic condemnation of all the sexual promiscuity of Venice and the women who become the religious scapegoat for the devastating Plague.
Like Aphrodite being brought before the judgment of Zeus and the rest of the Olympians when she is caught in the throes of passion with Ares, so the very integrity of the city is called into question as Marco urges Veronica’s lovers to stand up for her: “If Venice does not stand up now and acknowledge who she is, than we are all damned — not before this court, before eternity.” Through Verorica, Venus is brought out of the dungeons of Hades and asked to assume her rightful place as patroness of Venice.