Thursday, August 7, 2014


Roman Polanski, 2013
Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric

Despite a controversial, sometimes tragic life, the 80-year-old Roman Polanski just won’t quit and has scoffed at the notion of retiring. His eclectic, influential directorial career has produced a number of dark, visionary classics, while even his minor efforts are interesting examples of his prowess as a writer and filmmaker. 2013 saw the release of his twentieth feature length film, La Vénus à la fourrure aka Venus in Fur, which was finally given a US theatrical release in late July and early August. As with the previous Carnage (2011), this is an adaptation of a stage play with a small cast, fixed set, and claustrophobic quarters. Much of Polanski’s best work is concerned with the effect of paranoia, sexual terror, and power games within a confined space – Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-sac (1966), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976), Death and the Maiden (1994), The Pianist (2002), The Ghost (2010), and Carnage – and while Venus in Fur may not be among his masterpieces, it is a fascinating exploration of these themes.

Writer and director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has been auditioning women all day for his new play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s nineteenth century novel about masochism, Venus in Furs. Just as he is about to leave for the night, a bedraggled woman pushes her way into the theater and begs for a chance to audition. Though she is late, not listed on the register, and seems rather airheaded, the strange woman pleads with Thomas until he agrees to see her audition. Curiously, she shares the same name as the play’s heroine, Wanda, and soon convinces Thomas that she has far more to offer than first meets the eye. The audition, which continues throughout the night, becomes an intense power play and reveals Thomas’s fears and desires as he is dominated by Vanda/Wanda.

Based on the recent, popular, and award-winning play of the same name by American playwright David Ives, anyone expecting an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel is going to be in for quite a surprise. Ives’ play is more inspired by Venus in Furs (1870) than actually based on it, providing an intricate critique of traditional gender roles and masculine notions of fantasy and control. Sacher-Masoch’s novel concerns the relationship between a man, Severin, and his mistress Wanda. She dominates him sexually and he becomes her slave until she eventually meets another lover and loses interest, hoping to be dominated herself. In keeping with the well-established theory that the masochistic partner is really in charge – and thus guides the fantasy – Severin is in charge at all times in the novel. In a riff on Pygmalion, he transforms Wanda into his fantasy woman, a being of near mythic proportions.

In Polanski’s film, things are thankfully more complicated and the film refreshingly critiques the male fantasist attitudes behind Venus in Furs. This is an exploration of misogyny and gender roles, as well as men’s depiction of women as fantasy creatures rather than individual beings. There is fantasy, desire, domination, and submission, but there is also the sense that Vanda has been in control of the proceedings from the beginning. She coaxes his fantasies from him and changes them, just as she changes his play. As the novel uses a book-within-a-book format, the film adaptation mirrors this with a play-within-a-film, highlighting the theatricality of sexual fantasy. There is also the sense that Polanski is making fun of the trappings of S&M, which are the admittedly predictable and purposefully cartoonish backdrop for this power play.

Vanda’s costumes — a cheap reproduction of an 18th century dress and a corset, dog collar, and lingerie — poke fun at misogyny and recycled fantasies of submission and control. While she is dressed predictably, Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner quickly and capably transcends the character with humor, wit, and a deep sensuality. She’s one of the film’s shining moments and there is also something to be said for the fact that Polanski cast a woman in her late 40s in the role, rather than adhering to the stage play’s use of a much younger woman.

The film’s humor is subtle, but ever-present, right down to the use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as Thomas’s ring tone. Those legendary warrior maidens are explicitly linked to Thomas’s absent fiancée, who keeps calling his phone, while the closing credits roll over a gallery of famous paintings of mythic women. Perhaps the funniest moment is the excellent use of the set, which is supposed to be leftover from a musical version of Stagecoach. Vanda and Thomas manipulate and change the set through lighting; her audition first begins in a theatrical version of the Old West, but it soon changes to an intimate boudoir setting. Finally, she puts back-lighting on one of the cacti, so it that it resembles a massive, phallic statue.

This latter set piece is also connected to the film’s sense of the ominous and unpredictable. With the dark, empty theater and thunder and lightning storm moving in and out of the soundscape, there is a sense that something dreadful is about to happen. The sense of autobiography is also unsettling. Polanski is directing his wife in the starring role, while the only other actor, the excellent Mathieu Amalric, is a clear stand-in for Polanski himself. Both men are slight in stature and have handsome, if somewhat bug-eyed faces. Like Polanski, Amalric is both an actor and director. While American audiences will primarily remember him from Quantum of Solace (2008), Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and The Diving Bell and Butterfly (2007, alongside Seigner), he’s directed a handful of shorts, documentaries, and feature-length films, including On Tour (aka Tournée, 2010), where he also stars as the egotistical director of a traveling burlesque troupe. His Thomas runs the range of vulnerable, selfish, quirky, artistic, misogynistic, sympathetic, lustful, and more, essentially mirroring Polanski’s own changeable public persona.

Though this is one of his smaller films, in terms of scope and emotional resonance, it’s still a deeply personal work. Polanski raises many questions, but refuses to answer any of them. Is there a real Vanda/Wanda? Is Thomas a stand in for Polanski himself? Where are the diving lines between man and woman, fantasy and reality, performance and identity, director and actor, artist and muse, or husband and wife? Polanski’s refusal to provide a resolution reminded me of the far more visceral Repulsion, which shows an internal fantasy bubbling over into real-world action. Though tamer, Venus in Fur is more concerned with how internal fantasy shapes the performative aspects of personality, action, and waking life.

This dialogue-heavy, fairly static one-room black comedy will disappoint fans expecting a more literal adaptation of Venus in Furs or anyone hoping for a return to Polanski’s darker, earlier works. This is ultimately an intellectual, thoroughly middle-aged, bourgeois exploration of sexual fantasy. Both sex and violence are conspicuously absent, allowing for some aggressive and comedic verbal sparring that centers on the role of fantasy, desire, power, performance, and role play. A mediocre script is given a boost by excellent performances from Seigner and Amalric, confident direction from Polanski, some wonderful cinematography from Paweł Edelman, and a thoughtful, whimsical score from Alexandre Desplat. This comes recommended for fans of Polanski’s later work, such as Carnage and Death and the Maiden, but anyone afraid to sit down and read subtitles should avoid it.

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