We enter the theater in the same manner that Emmanuelle Seigner’s character Vanda does: down the sidewalk, between the trees, across the street, and through the doors, all while getting soaked in the pouring rain. The inside of the theater and Mathieu Amalric’s frustrated director Thomas don’t look to provide any respite from the poor weather, but appearances can be misleading. And when it comes to Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur, one should be aware that first impressions can be dead wrong. This isn’t just a story of an actress trying to coax a man into casting her for her play; this is a strange little film full of blurred lines and delightful discussion entirely geared around a sadomasochistic relationship.
Even though Polanski’s play adaptations aren’t his most heralded films, they tend to be the ones most interesting to look at. Death and the Maiden and Carnage in particular are well-handled (the former more so than the latter), never ceasing to utilize their single-set environments to full capacity. With Venus in Fur, we’re quite literally on the stage of a theater, with the performances unfolding just as they likely would have off-film. Of course, as it is on-screen, there’s room for visual touches that one could never find on stage. Paired again with regular cinematographer Pawel Edelman, Polanski always sets the frame in just the right way. Sometimes a close-up is used to brilliant effect — such as the acts of applying lipstick or zipping up a boot or dress — while other shots frame the two actors perfectly, the mistress Seigner looming behind her prey as he writes. But it’s almost all about the actors in Polanski’s film.
While the narrative only features two actors, their performances aren’t limited to solely two characters. Both Seigner and Amalric adopt two personas. The actress looking for a lead role and the writer-director longing to leave the theater after a horrible day of casting are only the first layer of that. Beneath that are the characters from Thomas’ adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs, Severin and Wanda, who engage in one hell of a sadomasochistic relationship. Both of the actors switch between their characters and the characters their characters are supposed to be playing near-immaculately. At times the shift between the play within a play and the arguments on stage are jarring, and at other times seamless, but that works to the film’s benefit.
Seigner is particularly impressive, adopting as many personalities as possible and showcasing just how much range an actress can have. Her primarily ditsy nature is quickly shed to showcase her skills of memorization, ability to manage the entire theater, and knowledge of the play. She plays her director like a fiddle, sometimes stirring him up with intellectual discussion while other times appealing to his sexual desires. Vanda is the kind of manipulative character we all love to watch, and Thomas is the submissive man that so beautifully exists to be stepped on. In his role, Amalric holds his own, just as interested in showing his range as she: one minute he’s yelling at the actress he’s reading lines for and the next he’s on his knees in front of her, proclaiming his submission to her.
“Do what you want with me; I submit,” he says. From then on, the lingering sexuality that drifted through the air becomes all the more intense. Vanda’s provocation of Thomas becomes far more blatant, just as the script they’re reading requires. As they continue shifting between their roles, the script and reality become one. In a way, one could be reminded of Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie conforme; two characters, a constant back-and-forth between them, and a blurring of reality all present. As they typically are though, Polanski’s film is far more layered with eroticism and energy than most of his equals. In this case, however, much of that sensuality has to do with David Ives’ original play, as well as the Sacher-Masoch’s novel.
As I’m unfamiliar with the stage play, there’s no telling whether or not it comes accompanied with music; but in Polanski’s adaptation, Alexandre Desplat’s slim score shifts from giddy to menacing, proving one of his best in years. It’s hard to actually tell what’s from the play and what’s from the often-twisted mind of the filmmaker, as one of Venus in Fur‘s final segments is the kind of deliriously surreal thing one could only expect from Polanski. What’s fascinating about Ives’ play, however, is the way it chooses to focus on BDSM and the power dynamics between genders. There’s plenty of comedy involved, but none of it comes off as mean-spirited towards a community of people who find appeal in bondage, dominance, and submission.
Vanda constantly brings up scathing dissections of the play being performed and discussed throughout the night in the theater, as well as of the classic Sacher-Masoch text. It’s clear that Ives intends much of his film to be a dark comedy in every bit of the dialogue, but it seems as though he has a lot to say about the way writers always feel the need to dismiss critiques of sexism in their works. Vanda is not there to be the writer’s Aphrodite, his Venus; she is there to critique what she claims is his pornographic text.
“Il Signore Onnipotente lo colpì e lo mise nelle mani di una donna” are words that are brought up more than once in the film, which translates to “The Almighty Lord smote him, and put him in the hands of a woman.” What Venus in Fur shows us is that, often enough, man deserves to be smote. And sometimes, the hands of a woman are most dangerous when in the presence of a man who only expects pleasure.
Venus in Fur is probably available online, so torrent it because Polanski isn’t exactly someone I’d recommend supporting, regardless of being a great filmmaker. You can also purchase David Ives’ play play instead.
Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Roman Polanski & David Ives; based on the play of the same name by David Ives; starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric; 96 minutes.