Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur, opening Friday at the Landmark theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley, unfolds almost entirely inside a theater in Paris. An adaptation of David Ives’ play (adapted from the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel), the film is a nifty two-hander in which Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s real-life wife) arrives late to an audition with the harried Thomas (Mathieu Amalric, who is made up to resemble Polanski here). She has a broken heel, and is dripping wet. Cursing her bad luck, she just wants a chance to perform. Thomas has had a bad day too, having seen a series of inappropriate actresses for the part of Vanda in the play. He is tired and frustrated, and just wants to go home and have dinner with his fiancée.
Venus in Fur plays with reality and perception as Vanda and Thomas engage in a pas de deux of sorts. They irk each other at first. She wonders if the play is based on the Lou Reed song. Thomas informs the actress that he is looking for someone different for the part. However, the director reluctantly agrees to audition the actress Vanda for the role of her namesake. She, it seems, is also auditioning him.
When the pair read the first three pages of the script, both Vanda and Thomas start to reveal their true characters. She has a surprising alacrity for the material; he responds keenly to her suggestion that he co-star in the production. Their back and forth is amusing and seductive. Viewers will become invested in the play and the film, caught up in the parallel on/off stage drama as well as with the characters blurring the lines between script, stage, and screen.
These elements provide the film with its pleasures, and the performances are terrific as well. Seigner strikes all the right notes as her character moves from innocent to experienced, and reveals late in the film that Vanda may be giving an entirely different performance. Amalric exhibits considerable control in his role that benefits the film immensely. As Thomas absorbs Vanda’s behavior, Amalric’s body language deftly conveys his characters’ emotional reactions. For example, his eyes, when he reacts to Vanda knowing the script by heart, speak volumes.
Venus in Fur cleverly has the performers break character from time to time to keep the play within the film from getting too arduous. Thomas answers his cell phone periodically, or Vanda stops her audition to query Thomas on the meaning of the text he adapted—as if getting him to justify some artistic decision. These shrewd moments, such as a debate the actress and her director have about the sexism of the play, keep this talky film from being too stagy. This narrative strategy also allows for some fun reversal of roles, as when Vanda “analyzes” Thomas, who is lying on the divan her character was resting on a few scenes earlier.
However, sometimes the deeper meanings are not very deep. Venus in Fur mentions pleasure and pain, perversion and passion, but there is really little exhibition of anything particularly pleasurable, painful, perverse or passionate. This may be the film’s point—that one has to imagine such things—but an early speech Thomas has about his aunt striking his naked buttocks with a cane as punishment is much more intense, erotic, and palpable than what is shown or discussed later in the film as the story reaches its climax. When Vanda has Thomas don lipstick, heels, and a dog collar, he never seems to be doing anything more than submitting to the role.
Far more interesting to consider is the shift in the balance of power between the two characters that seesaws throughout Venus in Fur. Who has the upper hand, and for how long, becomes the tension that percolates throughout the film, and Polanski, making a comment on the battle of the sexes here, certainly makes it clear who is the hammer and who is the anvil. When Vanda teases Thomas about his stage character’s interest in an attractive Greek man, she suggests a latent homosexual tendency. Her verbal emasculating of him here only reinforces her physically putting him in drag. Whether Thomas enjoys surrendering control to Vanda is open to debate, but it does provide one of the more interesting facets of Venus in Fur.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer