Roman Polanski’s latest stage-to-screen adaptation is a wickedly smart and wickedly playful cinematic piece that recalls much of what made Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac so devilishly fun. In Polanski’s hands, David Ives’ play works on so many more levels it’s almost bewildering. A two-character piece about power, perversion, subjugation, seduction, gender roles, and the relationship between an actress and her director, a director and his star, Venus in Fur makes us feel euphoric about movies, about their mystery, their power and their ability to move us to laughter or shock. This is easily one of Polanski’s best in years.
An Actress bursts into a theatre, late, soaked and mascara-streaked, to audition for one of the lead roles in a theatrical adaptation of the infamous erotic novella, Venus im Pelz. Despite the director’s hesitation, she worms her way into the audition insisting she was made for the part. As her audition begins, it becomes clear she is not who she seems and slowly power between director and actress begins to shift.
This is pure Polanski and very reminiscent of his earlier films. He’s always done his best work in confined spaces and with a handful of actors so if you’re either a Polanski completist or have an appreciation for films smaller in scope (but not in ambition) then you’re in for one sexy cinematic treat. Also note, this is a French language film with English subtitles.
The Bottom Line
Venus in Fur stars Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, a grumpy director-playwright who is adapting Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella for the stage. He is about to pack up after an unsatisfying day of auditions when an aspiring actress (Emmanuelle Seigner), who isn’t on his call-list, shows up, calling herself Vanda, the same name as the lead character she intends to audition for. Vanda seems unsophisticated and unprepared but after successfully contriving her way into the audition, the two rehearse and debate Sacher-Masoch’s tale of sexual power games – they begin to mirror the material by taking turns in manipulating each other and their domination over one another.
Live theatre is an act of shared imagination, wherein actors, in real time, create illusions of reality using props, sets, and their own voices and bodies. However, Polanski does not treat his adaptation as a filmed play – he moves the camera, he changes angles, and he frames his actors to subtly adjust the emphasis from moment to moment. Polanski tries to preserve the experience of watching Ives’ work in its original setting but enhances and elevates it using cinema to create a kind of abstract and high-level commentary, not just on the source material but on his own act of making movies (and this particular movie). This sort of layered experience, and the way the narrative segues between what is fiction and what is “reality”, accentuates themes and ideas far beyond the scope of the play and transcends it in many ways.
Polanski has a little meta-fun with the material, casting his own wife as Vanda, and casting an actor who looks a lot like himself as Thomas. That may be up to you to decide what he is trying to say about himself and, if anything, about his amoral reputation but it can’t be said the casting choice was made on that aspect alone. The two leads are superb, both giving one of the best performances of their respective and distinguished careers. If anyone can make a stock comeuppance feel like divine justice, it’s Seigner. She is the star attraction here – her Vanda starts out as a soggy mess, popping her gum and telling Thomas, “I’m really demure and shit.” But then she proves to be an astute critic of the play, breaking the story down as, “He’s a perv and she’s an object, like every woman in 1870-whatever.” Seigner shifts smoothly from flibbertigibbet to boss, and it’s righteously entertaining to see Vanda dismantle all Thomas’ arguments for his work and his life, forcing him to stop hiding behind a 140-year-old book and cop to his own desires.
The big question with Venus in Fur is whether all these psycho-sexual head-games and all the conversations about literature, obsession, and gender ever arrive anywhere particularly surprising or insightful. The film is bound to erupt heated discussions about feminism and anti-feminism, just as the two leads altercate over the meaning of the play, but there really isn’t an immediate answer to it all. At least not an easy one. The film is best viewed as a kind of Freudian wet dream that deconstructs gender and feminism to its barest minimum – an extremely symbolic climax that is distressing, funny but also presumptuous. It doesn’t bring anything new to contemporary feminist dialogue (it would have been a bit impertinent of the director anyway) but it certainly twists and writhes in interesting and humorous ways.