More sombre, controlled and abstract than Bene’s earlier work, this is a baroque, ironic and claustrophobic avant-garde ‘restatement’ of the opera’s incest episode. Accompanied by Mozart’s score, this compulsive, cubist fragmentation of conventional plot in favour of a more profound exploration also utilizes complex, subtle montage, varying from minimal cinema to a sustained staccato rhythm. Bene is reconfirmed as one of the true iconoclastic talents of contemporary cinema.
-Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art
We can see Don Giovanni as a concretion of Notre Dame des Turcs, a condensation pushed until the implosion of the splendors of the first feature-length film. Entirely shot in Bene’s Roman apartment, “on a set of three square meters,” counting more than 4,000 shots for a length of 70 minutes, this “marvelous madness, work of the Nervalian mad poet,” to quote Bene was the most admired of his films. Some critics compared Bene to Eisenstein for his genius in editing. This is a misinterpretation, because if Bene admired Eisenstein, he never stopped challenging the Soviet filmmaker’s “Stalinistic beauty.” In Don Giovanni, the editing is used in a way that is strictly opposed to the Eisensteinan principles: instead of assembling the divided up shots into a syntactic and political construction, Bene creates a splintering of images in order to prevent all fixation of meaning, all building up of character and an interpretable story. This Don Giovanni is in no way inspired by the opera of Mozart and da Ponte, of which there remains only some traces on the sound track, even less of the classical Don Juan from the theatrical tradition, but from the played out and decadent revival of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novella Le plus bel amour de Don Juan. Far from adapting the novella, Bene retains from it only certain elements, above all its critical power of myth, which he pushes until negation. “Imagination imitates; it is the critical mind that creates,” affirms Bene in citing Oscar Wilde. This critique of Don Juan aims at freeing what Bene considers to be the truth of the figure; not his strength, but his impotence, not his masculinity with his catalogue of feminine conquests but the Lacanian femininity of the non-existence of the sexual relation, mystical femininity of a being close to ecstasy by the abolition of his identity, by the morbid variation of his masks, his disguises, and his postures. The variation goes so far that it affects the character of Don Juan who becomes Saint Sebastien or Christ, Saint Theresa of Avila as a young girl or Alice in Wonderland. Explosion of space, scattering of points of view, demolition of shots: it is not only the theatrical scene that explodes in this frenzy of cuts and movements but also the filmic image and editing as syntax. No continuity, no connection, no reverse shot: nothing but the music of a solitude and shattered mirrors. The destruction of the image-mirror releases flashes never seen before in a film. The martyr of film opens to it an unimaginable elsewhere.