The later years of Roman Polanski’s career, after the turn of the century, have taken him to vastly different highs and lows. From his somber, Palme-winning WWII epic to the chilling, seaside world of British politics, the unimaginative adaptation of a beloved classic to the colorful adaptation of a modern theatrical masterpiece, Polanski has challenged himself in different arenas few directors of his age dare to do. Like Carnage, his latest, Venus in Fur, is also inspired by a play and restricted to a single stage but, as we have come to expect of the director, the result is hardly similar to his previous work.
Adapted from a David Ives play that takes its story from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Polanski’s Paris-set film tells the story of Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), a theatre director about to stage his interpretation of Masoch’s novella. In the original text, a man named Severin becomes fascinated with a woman named Vanda to such heights that he begs her to take him on as her slave. She does so, taking him to Florence with her as a servant. The joy with which Severin welcomes her orders has had a hand in coining the term “masochism.”
When the film opens, an audition session has ended and a frustrated Thomas is venting about the actresses who tried for the role of Wanda on his cell phone. The actresses trying to fulfill his fantasy version of Wanda were young and beautiful but not much else, and Thomas wants for the brains of someone who understands the character. Before the call is over, enters a woman called Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner). She is older than Thomas’s expectations and her chatty, disheveled personality isn’t immediately convincing. But she travels the distance between her reality and Thomas’s fantasy with such ferocious energy that the director agrees to let her try for the part.
In the absence of a male stand-in, Thomas takes on the part of Severin in the audition process, but the boundaries between the director-muse relationship and the master-slave one become increasingly blurred as the process moves forward. The power dynamic shifts, the director becomes subservient to the actress, and the film thrives on instilling in the audience a sense of confusion in distinguishing the two from one another. Thomas and Severin, and Vanda and Wanda morph into each other and revert back continuously until the boundaries are almost non-existent.
There’s an intriguing layer of meta-narrational self-referetianlity at work here: Seigner is Polanski’s wife in real life and Amalric has an unmistakable resemblance to the director in his younger years. Polanski revels in the kinky elements of the interaction between them. Accompanied by the playful tunes of Alexandre Desplat’s score, one can practically feel the old auteur jumping around the set, rubbing his hand with glee at the idea of his every mischievous touch. Yet such small pleasures are the extent to which the film entertains its audience. Venus in Fur is a rather amusing delight, but its pleasures rarely transcend those of a surface-level, kinky pas de deux between two superb performers.
The film’s exploration of the chemistry between the central couple(s) and the complexity of their shifting sexual dynamic is hardly revelatory or novel, but Polanski seems content with treating the material with a only light touch. It is the whirlwind of energy and winking humor that sweeps up the audience, removing all traces of theatrical stiffness that could structurally limit such a straightforward adaptation in theory.
Seigner and Amalric’s performances are of immense importance in lending the film this vibrancy. The latter’s physique and facial structure are a perfect fit for his character’s wide-eyed excitement and the trembling manner in which he confronts his desires. The real star of the show, however, is Emmanuelle Seigner. Her transformation from the bratty, shallow actress in her entrance to the sophisticated, domineering goddess at her departure is performed so seamlessly that we barely notice its progression, but for the devilish delight that becomes more pronounced in her demeanor as her control increases over her partner. Vanda overshadows the man who is meant to direct her with her superior understanding of Wanda’s character, and in another ‘meta’ twist to a film rich with many of them, Seigner does the same to the two men directing her.