Roman Polanski’s latest film, “Venus in Fur,” is a meditation on male/female sexual politics and sadomasochism.
Despite the subject, it is surprisingly stage bound and, well, moribund. A great deal of the theatricalism is, no doubt, owed to the source material, David Ives’ Tony Award-winning play of the same title, and the fact that all the interaction between the film’s only two characters takes place inside a theater.
The play was a big hit on Broadway. Here, on film, the setting has been changed from Manhattan to Paris. Following the only outdoor scene in the film – a slow pan down a rainy, desolate boulevard framed by leafless trees – we are introduced to our protagonist, Thomas, portrayed by French actor Mathieu Amalric.
Thomas is a playwright/director casting for an actress to star in his play. Alone in the darkened theater as he prepares to conclude his work day, Thomas is speaking into his mobile device, complaining to his fiancée that all of the day’s prospects gave miserable auditions, when in walks the antagonist of this comedic drama.
Vanda, portrayed by Emmannuelle Seigner (Polanski’s real-life wife), is determined to audition despite Thomas’ insistence that he is done for the day. Dressed in black leather, she is provocative and coarse. On the surface, she is seemingly wrong for the part of poised, sophisticated 19th century noblewoman. Vanda cajoles and finally worms her way into getting an audition after persuading Thomas to lace her up into a costume that she brought with her.
Though she claimed to have only a glancing knowledge of Thomas’ script, Vanda is transformed once she starts reciting the dialogue. She appears to already have committed the script to memory, much to the amazement of Thomas, whom she also has persuaded to read opposite her, transforming Thomas into the dominated character in his play.
Thomas’ script is, itself, an adaptation of a racy-for-the-time 1870 Austrian novel, “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It is from Masoch and his book, which explores the perverse pleasures of pain and degradation, that the word masochism was derived.
Within the confines of Ive’s play and Polanski’s cinematic adaptation, the interplay between Vanda and Thomas and the characters they portray in Thomas’ script is almost seamless. It becomes difficult to know where the dialogue between characters and the actors begin and end.
In and out of character, there is some amusing banter between the two, particularly as Vanda, out of character, observes that the script reads like pornography. Thomas protests that it can’t be because the source material, Sacher-Masoch’s book, is “a central text of world literature.”
“It looks like porn to me. I know my porn. I’m from the theater,” Vanda shoots back.
Still, 96 minutes in a claustrophobic theater setting – but still on celluloid – with these two can seem terminal after a while.
Venus In Fur
Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Roman Polanski
Running time: 96 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but R equivalent for profanity, adult content and brief nudity.
The Lowdown: An actress attempts to convince a director that she is perfect for a role in his upcoming production. In French with English subtitles.