‘Venus In Fur’ is a witty duet on love, seduction and obsession directed by Roman Polanski
In The Ninth Gate, Roman Polanski’s overwrought adaptation of Arturo Perez-Riverte’s elegantly demonic novel The Club Dumas, the operative theme was that each of us gets the Devil we deserve. In Polanski’s latest, the intriguing two-character sparring match Venus In Fur, the underlying theme might be: each of us gets the God (or Goddess) we deserve. And, because we’re in the Polanski universe, the director’s wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, co-star in both films, plays both Devil and Goddess.
Venus In Fur is adapted from the stage play by co-scenarist David Ives, which was inspired by the works of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the Austrian writer who put the “M” in S&M). It’s a meditation on pleasure and pain, sex and sexism, and the corruption of the notion of love by less wholesome desires. Essentially a dialogue between an actress arriving late for an audition and a touchy director in an empty Paris theater after hours, it’s an often comic and sprightly, occasionally poignant duet in which the harmonies constantly shift and tilt to keep the audience alert.
The story begins with the director, Thomas (Matthieu Amalric), in the semi-dark theater, complaining into his cell phone. “I’ve seen fifty idiot actresses,” he grumps, all of them too modern, and none of whom can cope with the ornate language of the play he’s written, an adaptation of an 1870 novella by Sacher-Masoch. In breezes Number 51, the flighty, gum-chewing Vanda (Seigner), drenched in a sudden downpour, and armed with a patter of cheerful profanity, a pushy manner, and a large carpet-bag full of tricks. When he’s about to send her packing, and she starts to cry, he grudgingly lets her put on her 19th-century gown and read some lines with him.
But something transformative happens when Vanda reads his lines. She becomes almost disturbingly poised and persuasive, playing an aristocratic woman toying with a hapless man infatuated with her. Even though she’s wont to break character in the middle of a scene to complain the dialogue is sexist or stupid, she gets the drift of their encounters, and taps into their percolating undercurrents.
“Conversation itself was erotic,” in those days, Thomas agrees.
As they further explore the play and their characters, the balance of power gradually shifts back and forth between Vanda and Thomas, from scene to scene. First she intuitively adjusts the stage lighting, then she improvises a provocative new prologue with herself as the goddess Venus, draped in furs (her ratty old Dr. Who-style knit muffler). Soon, she becomes the dominatrix the male character craves—as does Thomas himself, judging from the way he loses himself in their play-acting.
But as Thomas himself says of his character, “The more he submits, the more he controls.” So it’s only when Thomas is fully in her thrall that Vanda is ready to show him how completely he’s mistaken power and gratification for love—a subject she knows a little something about.
It can be no coincidence that Amalric is groomed here to resemble Polanski himself in his vintage years (circa The Fearless Vampire Killers), with his lank hair, Beatle bangs, and perpetually worried expression. His Thomas is a naïf posing as a sophisticate, and Amalric plays him with finesse. Seigner is also very impressive, shifting easily from blowsy “idiot actress” into someone far more capable of filling Thomas’ fantasy role than he could ever imagine.
The love of theater and stagecraft is also evident throughout the film, with the actors adroitly miming the removal of gloves and the pouring of coffee as they play out their make-believe scenes. Polanski keeps the action fluid as the characters prowl around the seats, stage, and wings of the theater, and the quicksilver way they slide in and out of character, keeps things from becoming too static.
Overall, Venus In Fur is a saucy bit of chicanery, but so deft and entertaining, we’re happy to be seduced.
VENUS IN FUR*** (out of four) With Emmanuelle Seigner and Matthieu Amalric. Written by David Ives and Roman Polanski. Directed by Roman Polanski. A Sundance Select release. Not rated. 95 minutes. In French with English subtitles.