Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Casanova Gene

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In this focus, writer Caitlin Quinlan looks at Luise Donschen’s Casanova Gene and its varying depictions of desire, a film placing personal attraction on a universal plane.

The delight of Luise Donschen’s Casanova Gene lies in its sheer simplicity. From scientists monitoring the behaviour of finches to sullen teenagers sharing an awkward dance in an empty bar, the first feature film from director Luise Donschen is a funny and charming debut, adventurous in its subject matter and memorable in its style.

Structured in short individual episodes with their own distinct narratives, the film balances stories alongside one another to create Donschen’s mosaic. Each chapter is a winking enticement into a world of discovery – a dominatrix teases her latest customer; John Malkovich flirts with an interviewer following his performance as Casanova on stage; a child clasps handfuls of lush, green moss. Each fragment is concerned with the fundamental truths of what draws individuals together, how our senses of attraction can be piqued or played with in various circumstances.

Scenes are intricate observations of attraction and resistance, the push and pull of intimacy and connection to the natural world, ourselves, or another individual. Warm colours and textures are captured on 16mm, and the film at times feels somewhat more like an art installation than a feature. Still, it retains a wonderfully cinematic commitment to human stories and common experience, expressed through beautifully crafted images with an emphasis on the tactile. The film depicts how absurd our habits can be, the mating rituals we adopt or the satisfaction we find in the simplest of pleasures. Casanova Gene does not shy away from this absurdity however, highlighting at once how often these games are inexplicable yet crucial to our own identities.

The film’s title references the gene found in female finches that determines their infidelity, an ode to Giacomo Casanova himself and his infamous polygamy. Deemed to serve no evolutionary purpose in the birds, the presence of such a “Casanova gene” is a result of inheritance from their fathers, a legacy of unfaithfulness passed down. The birds seem to be representative of an unexpected biological comedy at the film’s core, an analysis of nature vs nurture in dating behaviours. There is room to pick at typical gender roles and stereotypes, to elevate every instance of interplay between people whether it be young children or grown adults. It also provides a space to linger in our own experiences of romance and friendship, revisiting a whole spectrum of possible encounters from the rush of temptation to the crushing embarrassment of a first love. Episodes are delicately invasive, exposing the very privacy of our interactions with others that we may never speak of, yet are all too familiar with.

In this mingling of documentary form and orchestrated chapters, Donschen paints a vivid picture of modern love in a sweet 67 minutes. Casanova Gene, through its fiction as much as its fact, tells a story of personal connection on a universal plane. Deftly weaving its montage of associations on screen, Casanova Gene is a neat and satisfying film with a keen insight into the workings of sensory experiences and the nature of human performance.