Desire and its many forms have been explored extensively through all manner of media and art but Luise Donschen brings something completely new to the quest to understand this element of humanity with her hybrid documentary, Casanova Gene. I had the opportunity to experience the film at its North American premier at the Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real Festival and I was blown away by her novel approach. Donschen combines talking heads interviews, landscape meditations, verite elements, and scripted components in a seamless examination of the universal struggle to express desire — be it sexual, aesthetic, platonic, or some complex combination.
PPart of the allure of Donschen’s approach is her unapologetic fixation on her own desire. The film is made up of various stories, told in very different forms, and strung together through subtle transitions and a common thematic thread. Scenes are connected through movement, objects, or sometimes through challenging juxtapositions of meaning. The title, Casanova Gene, is explained early in the film when a scientist studying desire in finches explains an emerging theory that female finches get their sexual promiscuity from a “casanova gene” passed down from their fathers. Though it evolutionarily serves male finches to be promiscuous, it serves no identifiable purpose in females. In the Q&A that followed the screening, director Donschen explained that this concept was the initial spark that led her to explore human desire. She revealed that the hybrid structure of the film comes from her commitment to following her visual and aesthetic desires. Though it was interesting to hear her expand on this idea, the explanation was not necessary as it is apparent from every frame that the theme is embedded in the filmmaker’s subjects as well as her approach. What starts as an exploration of female desire through the concept of the casanova gene becomes a much larger account of human pleasures.
Framed through the mind of a female filmmaker exploring her own desires, the theme of desire takes on a much broader and more poetic tone than I have previously seen portrayed on film. After the initial revelation of the genetic origin of female finches’ desires, Donschen works to complicate this sterile explanation with a myriad of depictions of pleasure. A trio of young boys exploring a wooded area immediately follow the scientist’s theory. Donschen focuses on tactile pleasure through close-ups of the boys picking leaves and scraping tree bark. At first, their movements look unnecessarily destructive until Donschen reveals their purpose: they are building a small haven for a worm they have found amongst the leaves. Immediately, the binary implications of the scientist’s casanova gene is complicated by the protective and paternal instincts of the young boys.
Donschen continues to survey these complexities through the overt physical depictions of a sex worker, the devout and ritualistic pleasures of a priest, a reflection on desire by a transexual man, and an interview with John Malkovich both in and out of character as Giacomo Casanova. Through all of these elements, the camera remains an objective figure that both refuses and highlights its potential to objectify. Every shot is a stationary, mounted still that allows movement to unravel in front of it. From the opening shots of the movement of mating finches, the camera takes on an evaluative stance, as if collecting data not only on birds but on all manner of human desires. It creates an analytical gaze that clashes with the emotional depictions developing on screen. The camera’s constant, steady presence and Donschen’s use of long takes beg the questions, “who is being watched?” and “who is watching?”
The analytical objectivity of the camera is further undermined by a concentration on tactile pleasures. The film is shot entirely on 16mm film which brings a tangibly materialistic feel to every shot. Beyond the boys crunching leaves in the woods, the sense of touch is evoked throughout the interwoven stories in a way that adds the echoes of physical pleasure to the viewing experience. The camera watches as the priest delicately handles flowers and arranges them for the church and it is clear that he finds pleasure in this aspect of his daily ritual from the careful way he grabs each stem. We also see the sex worker, specializing in a variety of S&M, evoke tactile pleasures in her client by running her fingers along his shoulders, neck, and hairline. Later, we see this same sex worker in the throws of an orgasm — an equally physical and yet very different depiction of pleasure.
The tactile effect is amplified by the film’s sound design, which exaggerates moments of touch with overwhelming clarity. We hear the sex worker’s softly brushing fingers as if we were standing inches away, even though the camera is placed a good distance from the subjects. In line with her dedication to exploring her own aesthetic pleasures, Donschen often inserts scenes purely for visual and aural enjoyment. At one point we see and hear a man sweeping a Venetian square. His actions do not necessarily add to our understanding of the main subjects, but the hypnotic quality of movement and sound offers its own sensory pleasures for the audience. There is also an underlying background noise that pervades the film, like a soft cushion that all other noises are built upon.
Donschen’s exploration and expansion of human desire is created through layers of different depictions of pleasure — from the overt pleasure each of her subjects find and experiment with in their sequences to the ways in which the audience is encouraged to experience these pleasures tactically. This unique representation of human desire is built upon Donschen’s commitment to featuring elements that she finds pleasurable and the many ways that concept can be interpreted. In a culture that so often values male pleasure over female pleasure, and on a medium that regularly enforces tired depictions of human desire, Casanova Gene offers a truly inspiring deconstruction of the nature of pleasure and the vast ways in which human beings can experience it.