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Venus in Fur

by Joseph Pisano
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Friday Jun 20, 2014
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Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric star in 'Venus in Fur'
Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric star in 'Venus in Fur'  

Remarkably, it took only a few years for David Ives's play "Venus in Fur" to make its way from Off-Broadway to Broadway to Roman Polanski's attention to the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. That's a testament to its cleverly spooky charms.

As with his last film, "Carnage," another stage-to-screen adaptation, the paradoxically iconic and iconoclastic director, who is also well-versed in the theater, is faithful to his source material, but not too faithful. Translating the play into French and switching its setting from a dull audition room in New York to a shadowy, elegant theater in Paris, the typically assured Polanski -- with the brilliant assistance of his director of photography Pawel Edelman -- does what is necessary to make the single-location, two-hander both engagingly cinematic and stylistically his own.

A dark, battle-of-the-sexes comedy that explores domination, sublimation, and other risqu themes, "Venus in Fur" was already strongly reminiscent of a Polanski film. But the forever boundary-defying octogenarian still manages to make the proceedings even more Polanskian, most notably by casting his wife Emmanuelle Seigner as Vanda, a struggling actress who may not be as powerless as she seems. Never one to stop at more than enough, Polanski ups the self-referential ante by picking his decades-younger doppelgnger, the great French actor Mathieu Amalric (also Seinger's co-star in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") to portray Thomas, an imperious writer/director who controls Vanda's fate. Or perhaps she controls his.

It is possible that the mischievous Polanski is baiting pretentious critics (pas moi?) a little with this pairing. But there is no denying the fact that Seinger's smart and seductive performance also carries the film, so much so that even diehard Nina Arianda fans (she won a Tony for the same role in 2012) may be inclined to forgive Polanski's nepotism.

Ives's play is itself an adaptation -- though a decidedly oblique and unflattering one -- of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 erotic novella "Venus in Furs," about a European nobleman, Severin von Kusiemski, who is brought low by a dominatrix of his own making. In a not so incredible coincidence, she is also named Vanda (hint, hint). Mirroring Sacher-Masoch's story within a story framework, Ives fashions a play within a play, using one to critique or, more accurately, to thoroughly undermine the other.

Polanski's filmed version begins with the rain-soaked, mascara-smeared, leather-clad Vanda blowing into the theater like a force of nature and slyly bullying her way into an audition for the female lead in Thomas's staged retelling of Sacher-Masoch's supposed masterpiece. But the unbecoming Vanda, who knows Thomas is running late for a rendezvous with his achingly bourgeois fiance, does not express any gratitude for the opportunity. Instead, she offhandedly dismisses "Venus in Furs" as a piece of "S&M porn." Strangely, despite this slight and several others, the overtly chauvinistic Thomas continues with the audition, even agreeing to be her Severin.

Weirder still, not only does the initially befuddled Vanda now appear to know every word in the script, she also brought perfectly tailored 19th-century clothing for her and Thomas to wear. Completely beguiled by the increasingly in-control Vanda, Thomas cannot resist putting on his lovely smoking jacket and completely obliterating the line between himself and the boot-licking Severin. And, boy, is he enjoying the view from down there!

It is as if he is under a spell, though one he has essentially cast upon himself, with his own words, or rather Sacher-Masoch's. As the degradation heightens, the power dynamic between woman and man --as well as actress and director -- is apparently upended. But the always disbelieving Polanski is not buying it. He doubts whether Thomas-cum-Severin has really relinquished anything at all, since the fantasy being enacted is strictly a male one. No matter how cruel she is to him, Vanda is only doing what her "slave" wants, and, as actually happens in Sacher-Masoch's novella, he can reassert his judgmental authority over her whenever he no longer finds her behavior pleasurable. It is a hypocrisy that neither Ives nor Polanski can stomach though the real-life feminist and bondage aficionado Sacher-Masoch was apparently just fine with it.

Today, Sacher-Masoch's last name, or at least half of it, is mostly remembered for the neologism it inspired, "masochism." The prevailing irony here is that both Ives and Polanski obviously enjoy intellectually smacking Sacher-Masoch around for ninety or so minutes, impishly taking him to task for his moralistic misogyny.

Every now and then, however, it does seem as if Polanski wants to hit a little harder than Ives does, perhaps even by turning the comedy into a tragedy. But composer Alexandre Desplat's playful score lets us know that matters will not become too serious. At the same time, rest assured that Polanski would never deny an avenging goddess her revenge.

Joseph Pisano is a freelance writer living in New York.

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