Venus In Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

France (2013) Dir. Roman Polanski

It’s fair to say that over the past few years Roman Polanski cinematic endeavours have been overshadowed by his personal life, namely an indiscretion from almost 40 years ago which has haunted him ever since. Regardless, Polanski continues to work with this 2013 entry being his most recent film.

A two-hander based on the successful Broadway play by David Ives, director Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric) has spent an unproductive day auditioning actresses for the title role in his adaptation of 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Just as Thomas is about to leave, Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up, dishevelled and out of sorts begging for an audition.

Thomas politely tries to refuse but Vanda is extremely persuasive, even whipping out her own period dress suited to the role. After begrudgingly giving her a chance Vanda surprises Thomas with her knowledge and understanding of the character and the novel, but soon Vanda’s forceful personality takes the audition into an interesting territory.

Hold whatever opinion you have about Polanski, you have to admit that this a bold and ambitious project in a world in which fast-paced comic book action and immersive mythical worlds are the order of the day for most cinemagoers. The idea of being in the presence of just two people for 96 minutes holds little appeal but with the right script and seasoned performers, it is possible to pull it off.

Naturally being French and with this stage play origins, this is a dialogue heavy affair which again will limit its appeal for many, which is why Polanski deserves kudos for delivering such an oddly engaging and persistent film which defies and assuages any concerns one may have going into this beguiling production.

The engine of the whole story is Vanda, an utterly unpredictable and unfathomable woman whose motives are never easy to define, even when you think you’ve figured her out. At first she is the classic meta heroine, arriving late for the audition and in a right state after a day of disasters, only to impress Thomas with a superb performance. So far, so run-of-the-mill.

But as Thomas gets into playing the male role against Vanda as she proffers her take on the text from a female perspective, Thomas finds himself falling under Vanda’s spell as  a woman, unaware that she is now the one directing the audition. In fact she not only controls the events on the stage but also away from it, dictating to Thomas what he should say to his fiancée whenever she calls him even changing elements of the script and writing a new scene for it.

The big question mark over Vanda is where the performance begins and ends – is it when she is portraying Venus, or when she is being herself, whoever that may be. The conceit of the script is the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality which extends beyond the stage setting for the viewer, witnessing the reveal of a third persona for Vanda which draws another veil over her already mysterious character.

It isn’t like the warning signs weren’t there already with Vanda’s upfront and capricious bulldozing over Thomas to start the audition. We can sense there is something of an edge to this vivacious and driven woman but the beauty is in how the layers of intrigue remain in place until the end – is she a feminist, a sexual predator, a sexual submissive (the play is about that very subject) or just a bloody good actress?

Thomas is none the wiser as he undergoes a peculiar journey of his own from man in control to man under control. He believes his script is flawless and his understanding of the story is complete but Vanda sheds new light on the meaning and interpretations of the characters’ motives and foibles. The submissive facet is not a sign of love as Thomas infers, resenting Vanda’s reductive conclusion that it is “19th century S&M porn”.

As a role reversal tale, the transition is subtle but not so unexpected with Vanda’s dominant personality hinted early in the film, but the extent of her mission and Thomas’s fate is certainly a surprise. I don’t know if this was a Polanski creation or if the original play ends this way but it definitely comes out of leftfield and has a decidedly Ken Russell vibe about it.

Making this a personal interpretation is Thomas being a rather obvious reflection of Polanski himself, from his appearance to the barbed reference to his early mentioned troubles – Thomas recalls being abused by an aunt as a child then curses the modern media’ hysteria over the subject. This may not engender a wry smile from everyone but it is indicative of the acerbic wit added to what could have been a very po-faced venture.

In Mathieu Amalric the character of Thomas is very much a real person, full of nuance, nervous energy and misplaced confidence. The role was originally meant for Louis Garrel but other commitments precluded him from taking it but to honest Garrel couldn’t have done the role justice – he is just too stiff while Amalric is capable of inhabiting any skin given to him.

Polanski’s other personal touch was casting his current wife Emmanuelle Seigner as Vanda/Venus, her incendiary performance being a tour-de-force essaying of this bewitching character. Vanda is sexy, funny, witty, outrageous, dangerous, uncertain, playful, mysterious and impossible all in one 90-minute cycle and at 47 at the time of filming, Seigner can teach younger actresses about how to exude sexiness!

Venus In Fur is a film that technically shouldn’t work but with two exceptional leads, a fast paced (often heavily involved) script and superbly choreographed staging within a single location, Polanski makes it work. Too verbose and dense to appeal outside of a niche audience, adventurous film fans will find their own rewards in this plucky work.