Venus in Fur
by George Wolf
A director as accomplished as Roman Polanski doesn’t put anything on film by accident. His latest, Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure), is an intimate drama with just two, very deliberate cast members.
One is Polanski’s wife, and the other is a dead ringer for the director himself at a younger age, a combination which adds an eyebrow-raising layer of intrigue to what transpires on this psychosexual battlefield.
Polanski also co-wrote this adaptation of David Ives’s Tony award-winning play, which is set entirely within an empty theatre. Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has finished auditions for a play he’s directing and is about to head home when Vanda (Emannuelle Seigner) appears, begging for a chance to show Thomas that she’s perfect for the lead role in his stage production of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs.
And the play-within-the-play begins, as the brash, uncultured, seemingly unprepared Vanda dazzles Thomas with an uncanny understanding of the material and how best to present it onstage. The two read deeper and deeper into the script, as the line separating fact and fiction gets blurry and the balance of power between them begins to change.
Both performances are exceptional. Seigner gives her long career a new high water mark, effortlessly moving Vanda in and out of character, casting equal spells on Thomas, and on us. Amalric makes Thomas’s journey to subjugation a gradual, satisfying surrender, as he tries to keep up with Vanda in her brilliantly executed game of wits.
As with his Death and the Maiden and more recently, Carnage, Polanski seems to relish digging into these stories of psychological warfare. His touch again is masterful, keeping it light in the early going, and then twisting the screws with clinical camerawork that reflects the growing intensity.
What already was a devious essay on human nature takes on an even greater heft with Polanski at the helm. Lines such as “Maybe she wanted to be corrupted!” stop the wicked humor in its tracks, as you ponder the personal statement that may be at work here.
Is the director a master or servant? Which director exactly? Is this a feminist decree or merely a flimsy, perverse attempt to make “S&M porn” seem empowering?
Those are just some of the levels on which Venus in Fur succeeds. It’s an enthralling, almost dizzying spectacle.