Esteemed director Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is preparing his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs for the stage, and Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, The Ninth Gate) is late for her audition. She stumbles into the theatre from the rain – her hair tousled, her makeup running, her clothes wet, her demeanor frazzled. Thomas eyes her wearily and informs her that auditions are over. What he doesn't tell her is that it's immediately obvious to him that she's a poor fit for the part. Her screechy voice, gum-chewing modernity and clear lack of protocol don't exactly mesh with the refined, mature role he needs to fill. Even so, she has the right physical appearance for the part, and she does coincidentally share a name with character she wishes to play. Thomas begrudgingly permits Vanda to read a few lines. She nails them. He eagerly invites her to read a few pages. She agrees, but the more he asks of her, the more she begins to ask in return.
So begins Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur, the director's second stage-to-film adaptation in a row. This effort is even more minimalist than the four-player Carnage, cutting the cast size in half and placing all of the action on a single stage (Carnage at least had multiple rooms to explore). It's arguably the least cinematic film Polanski has ever made (a disappointment considering that he has found ways to visually deepen other small-scale movies), but nonetheless an absorbing, well-acted affair which eventually begins to feel like a Russian nesting doll of a movie: layers within layers within layers of commentary, meta-commentary and meta-meta-commentary on theatre, sadomasochism and Polanski himself.
Indeed, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch is the man the term “sadomasochism” is named after, so it's no wonder that such an element plays a major role in the film. Thomas is directing a play about a man who finds sexual pleasure in being humiliated by a powerful woman, but real life begins to mirror art as the audition process continues. Thomas finds himself forced to get on his knees and beg Vanda to continue, and it's increasingly unclear whether we're watching performances or reality or both (option three seems most likely in most cases). We're also treated to curious clues about Vanda's true identity. It's clear that she's not who she says she is, but when she lays all her cards on the table we're even more convinced she's holding something back. Additionally, as she acts out her part, she begins to question the nature of her role and the source material, accusing it of indulging in male fantasy. Yes, the female character may be a more powerful figure, but she's only powerful within the confines of a specific fantasy. So is the play objectifying or empowering? Again, “both” seems a solid answer. This is such a devious little puzzle box of a movie – it asks many questions, and provides devious grins in the stead of answers.
Polanski's name is often mentioned in conversations about “separating the art from the artist,” as many admire his work as an director while recognizing that he is, in fact, a man who has been convicted of statutory rape. It might be a little difficult for viewers to make the distinction between Polanski and his filmmaking in this particular case, as it quickly becomes obvious that Thomas really ought to be named Roman. Mathieu Amalric looks uncannily like a younger Polanski, and there's one scene in which Thomas furiously rants about the way society's need to nitpick about certain P.C. social issues prevents society from appreciating great art (ahem). Thomas is given an exceptionally unflattering portrayal – he often comes across as a spoiled, clueless, arrogant, needy child - but context is everything. The play within the play is about a man who gets off on being humiliated. Eventually, Thomas begins to get off on being humiliated. As such, is it reasonable to conclude that Polanski is getting off on humiliating himself by proxy? I couldn't help but wonder whether Seigner took him home at night and flogged him to prepare for the next day's shoot, which certainly isn't a thought I ever expected to have.
Seigner's casting is an essential part of the film's intentional, weirdly personal nature, but it's also something of a liability. The role she's playing is an incredibly demanding one, and despite the fact that Seigner delivers the finest performance I've ever seen from her (she's played major roles in a number of other Polanski flicks), she still isn't quite good enough. She's fine as the sophisticated, elegant woman contained within the pages of the play she's working on, but struggles when it comes to making her real-life counterpart (who also contains several different shades) similarly compelling. Amalric tends to steal the screen from her despite the fact that he's playing a considerably more passive character, which seems to slightly detract from the film's intended effect. I don't know who could have met the steep demands of the role – Marion Cotillard, perhaps? - but Seigner doesn't quite get there. Even so, there is a fire in her eyes during the final scene; an ancient savagery that leaves precisely the impression it's supposed to. This is minor Polanski in a variety of ways, but it creates more than a few moments that linger with you, daring you to plumb their depths.
Venus in Fur
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Year: 2014