Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)
Whether or not one finds Roman Polanski a great artist, a problematic human being, or both (there’s a terrific 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that explores his sexual crime of the 1970s), he proves in his new French-language film, Venus in Fur, that he can still direct a powerfully affecting story. Given that this movie takes place in a single location with only two actors, who spend all of their time talking to each other without the benefit of visual effects (unless one considers lead actress Emmanuelle Seigner’s leather corset one such effect), Polanksi’s feat in creating such a cinematically gripping tale out of such spare tools is especially remarkable. True, it all breaks down and descends into a bit of forced hokum at the end, but until it does, Venus in Fur is a movie that dominates your head, your heart and possible other parts unmentioned.
The film is based on a play by David Ives (who collaborated with Polanksi on the screenplay adaptation), which was, itself, inspired by the 1870 Austrian novel of almost the same title, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name, because of this book, formed the basis of the word “Masochism”). The story is that of one Thomas Novachek, a playwright (and first-time director) who has just adapted von Sacher-Masoch’s book for the stage. At the end of a hard day of terrible auditions, as Thomas is preparing to leave the deserted theater for a relaxing dinner with his fiancée, in walks a bedraggled woman of uncertain age and provenance, who introduces herself as Vanda (the same first name as the main woman in the book and play), and declares that she is there (albeit late) for an audition. She has even come with costumes, including a modern leather dominatrix outfit (which Thomas sneeringly derides as anachronistic) and a 19th-century dress. She is working-class and vulgar, and not at all in the mold of the character that Thomas has written, yet after some back and forth, she manages to convince him to let her read. And then, suddenly, she metamorphoses into an almost perfect incarnation of the woman of Thomas’s words (and, possibly, dreams).
What follows is a delightful series of short vignettes of the play within the movie – a play which appears to be about one man’s obsession with seeking pleasure from pain and punishment at the hands of a dominant woman – interrupted by frequent breaks when Vanda insists on questioning the themes of the play, and Thomas’s motives in writing it. Slowly, this woman whom Thomas initially treats as his own private Pygmalion begins to take over the action, turning Thomas from creator/dominator to creation/submissive. It’s a fascinating progression, and the two leads incarnate their characters with wit, wisdom . . . and no small amount of sexiness. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, among many terrific roles), one of France’s finest actors – and here coiffed à la Polanski, becoming the film director’s doppelgänger on screen – gives a performance imbued with the usual thoughtfulness we have come to expect from him, along with a touching nervousness I had not seen before. It is Seigner (also in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which she played Amalric’s long-suffering wife), however, who is the revelation here. Earlier in her career, in movies from her husband Polanski’s fallow period, such as Frantic, Bitter Moon and The Ninth Gate, she demonstrated an almost embarrassingly shallow range of emotions. But in the last 10 years she has grown as an actress, and now in her late 40s is a magnificent and nuanced screen presence. The way she makes her Vanda instantly jump from 19th-century diction to 21st-century patois is a marvel to behold. See the movie for her (and her boots!). True, for this viewer, the ending became too obvious and clumsy for me to call the entire film great, but until those final 15 minutes I was hooked.