Venus in Fur (2013)
Editor’s Note: Venis in Fur opens in limited release this Friday June 20th.
The first thing you’ll likely notice about Venus in Fur, the new stage-to-screen adaptation from Roman Polanski, is the extraordinary physical resemblance between the film’s lead actor and its director. Mathieu Amalric makes for an absolute dead ringer of Polanski, who turned 80 last year. The casting may seem at first like a cute joke. Amalric also stars alongside Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife of 25 years. He plays a stage director looking to cast an adaptation of Venus in Furs, the 18th century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Amalric’s character insists early on that his adaptation is a personal work, not mere stenography of the novella. “There’s a lot of me in the play,” he tells Seigner.
The question that hangs over Venus in Fur is just how much Polanski there is in it. As the casting of a doppelganger alongside his real-life wife suggests, you’ll find traces of Polanski all over this well-mounted adaptation. A sexy, claustrophobic comedy, Venus in Fur is a fine telling of David Ives’ hit play and a compelling glimpse into the mind of one of cinema’s most divisive figures.
A sexy, claustrophobic comedy, Venus in Fur is a fine telling of David Ives’ hit play and a compelling glimpse into the mind of one of cinema’s most divisive figures.
The film unfolds in real time inside a Parisian theater off the Champs-Elysees. Polanski introduces us first to Thomas (Amalric), an arrogant stage director in search of the lead for his adaptation of Venus in Furs. The novella, and his play, tells the story of a masochistic man so obsessed with a woman that he becomes her willing slave. Thomas whines on the phone about the uncultured women he auditioned that day, his tone belittling and misogynistic. He cringes at the sight of Vanda (Seigner), a woman who arrives unannounced to audition for the role of Wanda, the play’s female lead. She enters wet from the rain, frazzled and chatty. Vanda has an immediate, almost vulgar sex appeal, which we gather isn’t what Thomas wants for the part. She seems to embody Thomas’ exact views on women: she’s physically alluring but not too bright. Thomas tries to leave, but Vanda refuses to let him go until they read through a scene.
One scene turns into another. Vanda, turns out, can act. Thomas can’t believe that the gum-smacker he met ten minutes before could transform into the actress he sees now. The two play out the production’s key roles: Thomas reads as Severin the masochist, Vanda as Wanda the tormentor. Some questions begin to bother Thomas (and us). How does Vanda have all her lines memorized? Why does she have vintage, period-appropriate props in her bag? When did she learn to light a theater stage like a pro? Why does her name rhyme with Wanda? Why does she seem so…perfect?
We soon learn just how much of Thomas there is in Severin, the groveling masochist. Venus in Fur explores the slippery power dynamics between its two leads as they read from the play and slide out of character to provoke, seduce, and insult one another.
David Ives’ play has filled theaters on and off Broadway for a reason. Venus in Fur is an entertainer, a two-person showdown spiced with erotic tension. Polanski has found an ideal pairing to bring this scenario to the screen in Amalric and Seigner. The actors sustain this premise; the play calls on them to shift roles — seducer and seduced, master and slave — from one beat to the next, and Amalric and (especially) Seigner keep the anxiety level high enough that we never fret for a change in scenery. The film plays like an organic chamber piece, not a theatrical production slapped on the screen.
The film plays like an organic chamber piece, not a theatrical production slapped on the screen.
It also works as a clever takedown of Thomas and, in turn, the misogyny he represents. Thomas wants a fantasy: a woman who’ll punish him but whom he can still control as a stage director; a woman who’ll undress without being asked; a woman who’ll indulge his every whim as both a sadist and masochist. Venus in Fur shoves that fantasy back in his face. Few won’t find pleasure in watching Seigner toy with him as Vanda.
Ives’ dialogue and the performances propel Venus in Fur, but Polanski’s identity lurks throughout. Namely, one has to wonder why Polanski cast his younger twin in the role of a reprehensible woman-hater. I get the sense that Polanski made the film both for its playful back-and-forth and to explore some of his own darker impulses. We learn that Severin (as played by Thomas [as played by Amalric]) developed a taste for masochism after a childhood sexual experience with his aunt. Here is a Roman Polanski film that highlights the lasting blowback of a sexual encounter between an adult and a child. We’re free to connect the dots to Polanski’s own autobiography from there.
Disturbing subtext aside, Venus in Fur remains a light, sprightly affair. It’s a film of modest ambition — to bring a two-person stage comedy to the cinema — and it achieves that aim with some verve. All hail Emmanuelle Seigner, anchor of this movie and regulator of men like Thomas, Severin, and Polanski.
Roman Polanski does justice to David Ives’ hit American play with his French adaptation of Venus in Fur, a well-mounted erotic comedy with more that a few personal touches from the director.