Directed by: Roman Polanski.
Written by: Roman Polanski & David Ives based on the play by Ives and the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda), Mathieu Amalric (Thomas).
Since his first film, Knife in the Water back in 1962, Roman Polanski has often excelled in putting his characters in a confined space, while at the same time making the films more cinematic than many directors in a similar situation have been able to do. In Knife in the Water, it was three characters on a boat. In Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976), Death and the Maiden (1994) and Carnage (2011) it was an apartment or a house. In his latest film, Venus in Fur, it is a theater – where a playwright and an actress meet with her auditioning for a role in his adaptation of the famed book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch about the sadomasochistic relationship between an intellectual and a seemingly innocent young woman. It starts off as we expect, and then takes some unexpected turns.
It would be easy – yet probably unwise –to read this movie as a little autobiographical on the part of Polanski. He has, after all, cast his wife of 25 years, Emmanuelle Seigner, as the female lead Vanda, and Mathieu Amalric, who could very easily play Polanski in a biopic as the two superficially resemble each other, as the male lead. But just because that is true, doesn’t mean that the film has much to do with Polanski’s personal life – it is based on a play by David Ives, which was in turn based on a novel from the 1870s – and the casting choices are just as easily explained by the fact that Polanski wanted to work with two great actors – both of whom are perfectly cast.
In the film, Vanda pushes her way into an audition after they were supposed to be done for the day. The only person left in the theater is Thomas, the playwright and first time director, who really doesn’t want to go through another audition, but since he doesn’t believe she’s going to let him go otherwise, he begrudgingly relents, and lets her read for the role – with him taking on the other role. At first she seems like a ditz – a beautiful woman to be sure, but too old for the role, and he just wants out of there. But then the audition starts, and she does the role brilliantly, and he’s drawn to her. But she continues to push his buttons throughout their reading – insulting the play, insulting the book, questioning its authenticity, its sexism, and whether its autobiography for Thomas. Thomas gets increasingly flustered – wanting to know how she can be so good at playing the role, she quite clearly doesn’t understand. But she understands it better than he thinks she does – even better than she does really, and through the reading of the play, and her interactions with Thomas in between the readings, she is essentially doing her own modern, feminist rewrite of the play – as the two fall into versions of the characters they are playing.
More than anything else, Venus in Fur is an acting showcase, and as that it is wonderful. Segnier has the more difficult role, as she is playing different versions of herself throughout, hiding her real motivations throughout. She’s sexy, brash, funny, smart and everything in between. It’s a showcase role for her, and she does it brilliantly. Amalric has the easier role – he’s easier to read throughout – but he makes a great foil for Segnier.
But it’s also a showcase for Polanski – who opens and closes the film with a pair of great tracking shots, the first starting outside the theater that moves seamlessly inside, and the last doing the precise opposite. Throughout the film, Polanski finds interesting ways to suggest the power dynamics between the two characters, and makes the most of the limited space of the theater like no one could.
Like his last film, Carnage, Venus in Fur is more of a lark for Polanski than one of his better, deeper films. Both films are hurt a little when they strain for importance, and are far better when they simply allow their actors to go at each other with everything they have. Venus in Fur is a better, more confident film than Carnage however – perhaps because the material is a better fit for Polanski. Venus in Fur may be minor Polanski – but it’s still a hell of good time at the movies.