Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Mathieu Amalric, Emmannuelle Seigner.
Sex and power are two recurring themes in the films of Polish born director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist, etc), and they dominate his latest film, which is an adaptation of David Ives’ Tony award winning 2010 hit play Venus In Fur. Ives’ play itself was adapted from a 19th century novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to the term masochism.
Working closely with Ives, Polanski’s adaptation of the play is reasonably faithful, but is also very claustrophobic. This is another intense piece of theatre, a two hander which takes place in the one static location, much in the same vein as his adaptations of Death And The Maiden and Carnage. Like Carnage, most of the action is limited to single setting, but Polanski uses the claustrophobic setting to advantage to provide psychological insights into the two characters, and he probes their inner demons.
When the film opens, theatre director Thomas (played by Mathieu Amalric, from Quantum Of Solace, etc) is casting a version of his new play based on Venus In Fur, but he has been frustrated that he hasn’t found the right actress during a lengthy audition period. He is getting ready to leave for the night, when Vanda (Emmannuelle Seigner) turns up, dripping with rain and wanting to try out for the role. Thomas is initially dismissive believing that she is not suitable for the role. But Vanda insists she be heard, and thus begins a strange audition. The play itself is about bondage, discipline and kinky sex, and an exploration of the relationship between a dominatrix and her submissive male slave/lover.
There is plenty of sexual tension between the two as they lay bare their naked emotions. But the longer the audition continues the more we see the shifting power games between the sexes, and the roles eventually become reversed. Thomas and Vanda slip in and out of character as they discuss the nature and meaning of the play and the significance of its overtly misogynistic themes. Vanda knows the character and her lines intimately and becomes the perfect embodiment of the fictitious Vanda. She is a strong woman who seems in control.
Polanski’s films are often quite dark and disturbing, but Venus In Fur finds the director in a more playful mood, as the film slowly begins to erode the usual male sexual fantasies. The film blurs the lines between fiction and reality, between art and life, truth and lies, the relationship between actor and director and man and woman.
There is something slightly autobiographical and disturbingly unsettling about the casting here. Amalric looks remarkably like a younger version on Polanski himself. He becomes increasingly uncertain and insecure, and his mannered performance captures that brittle edge. This is certainly a vehicle for Seigner, who is Polanski’s wife, and she is full of energy and unrestrained sexuality here as the foulmouthed, over confident Vanda. There is also something about her role here that smacks of the sado-masochistic relationship that was at the crux of Polanski’s 1992 drama Bitter Moon, which also starred Seigner.
However, this is almost like a filmed version of a play, and is an example of filmmaking stripped back to its bare essentials. The fluid camerawork of his regular cinematographer Pawel Edelman (The Pianist, The Ghost Writer, etc) opens up the material slightly.
But there is no escaping the reality that Venus In Fur is heavily dialogue driven and static, and the wordy nature of the drama may not hold broad appeal for all audiences. It also lacks the dramatic fireworks of Carnage, his previous adaptation of an acclaimed stage piece. Nonetheless, it is certainly of interest for fans of the director.