Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) and Mathieu Amalric (Thomas) in Roman Polanski’s VENUS IN FUR. Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis. A Sundance Selects Release.
It was with a great deal of trepidation that I approached “Venus in Fur” as translated, adapted (with David Ives) and directed by Roman Polanski from David Ives’ superlative play. First there was Polanski’s disastrous, heavy-handed interpretation of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” delivering a film totally lacking the ironic humor of Christopher Hampton’s original translation. Then there was the precipitously high bar set by Nina Arianda’s breathtaking Tony-winning performance in Ives’ play.
Much like “My Dinner with Andre,” “Venus in Fur” is pure theater, entirely dialogue-driven, an art form almost diametrically opposed to the visual medium of film. “Venus in Fur,” based on a 19th century novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is dynamic in its conflict and tension and when done well, and thankfully this production is done well, it can leave the viewer conflicted and almost as anxiety-prone as the male protagonist. As should have been known from the start, we are all, in one way or another, at the mercy of Venus.
Gratefully and gracefully, Polanski has delivered a film that is, for the most part, worthy of its theatrical origins in a French translation faithful to the original. Working with his wife, the well-regarded Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, the award-winning actor at the top of his game, best known for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” as well as his recent appearance in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Polanski succeeds in giving us a film loaded with erotic possibility. That ultimately he is unable to sustain the tension and promise of the premise is the only major flaw.
Thomas (Amalric) is at the end of an exhausting and frustrating day spent auditioning actresses for the lead in his new play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel, “Venus in Fur.” All were either dim-witted, behaviorally inappropriate or inadequate. Packing up to leave the empty theater, he is startled when Vanda (Seigner), disheveled and hours late, arrives declaring that the weather and traffic were to blame for her tardiness. Stockings torn, make-up smeared, tattoos evident, she is a hurricane of excuses and demands. Unwilling and unable to fight her aggressive approach and intrigued that she would share the same first name as the lead character, Thomas agrees to let Vanda read for him and the fun, at least for Vanda, begins.
It is to Sacher-Masoch that we owe the term masochism and such is the relationship between the character of Vanda, as played by Vanda, and Herr Sacher-Masoch, as read by Thomas. Vanda’s reading of the play and her character is pitch perfect and that is both thrilling and disconcerting to Thomas as he questions how she knows the part so well when the complete script has been kept in secret. No matter. Vanda, going in and out of character, soon has Thomas wrapped tighter than a dominatrix’s bondage client, pulling him in and out of her grasp like a master puppeteer.
Are we viewing a reading of the play? Are we participating in a real life drama? Is Vanda real or a necessary figment of Thomas’s imagination, haunted by his inadequacies, the difficulties of mounting the play (all meanings of the word intended) or his doubts about his personal life? Is Vanda a muse? A devil? His conscience? The sexy woman of his dreams both dominating and submissive, no longer at his command?
Polanski deftly increases the tension incrementally like the gradual tightening of a boa constrictor around its prey. This is his strength and he wields it like a master. If there is a glitch in his manipulations it lies somewhat in his choice of leading lady. Seigner is fine in the role but, whether because of directorial choice or her own limitations in the role, she is not entirely convincing whenever Vanda the character reverts suddenly to Vanda the actress. The transition needs to be seamless, leaving the viewer breathless and as trapped in space as Thomas. This is only a slight quibble and perhaps I would have been unaware of this interpretive choice had I not seen Nina Arianda’s performance as Vanda. Seigner is, nevertheless, quite good in the role, almost the right mix of Madonna and whore.
It is, however, Amalric who shines in what was meant to be the subsidiary role of the submissive. It cannot be mere coincidence that Amalric is a dead-ringer for a young Polanski, especially as the character he is playing is both a director and a self-declared victim. Amalric’s Thomas makes the transitions from the masochistic actor he is performing to the director allegedly in control of the reading invisibly. His superb performance shifts the balance from Vanda to Thomas in a way that was not originally imagined but he makes it a viable choice and one that deepens the male role over how it was presented in the original play. If there is a true weakness to the film, it lies in an ending that, while probably intending to invoke both Salome’s dance of the seven veils and Kali, the goddess of empowerment, takes the viewer out of the heightened tension that has built gradually over the short span (95 minutes) of the film and ends with theatrical abruptness.
By all means stay to end as the credits run on top of an exquisite slide show of “Venus” paintings by the masters of the Renaissance, most known some not as familiar. Like so much of the film, they are breathtaking.