Venus in Fur ✮✮✮
Breather … or Polanski Answering Critics?
by Glenn Lovell
Why would the director of “Chinatown” and “The Pianist” busy himself with a filmed stage play about an insecure playwright and a pushy Parisian actress who could double (at least in Act I) as the playwright’s muse? Something to ponder as you’re watching Roman Polanski’s winking adaptation of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” starring Polanski lookalike Mathieu Amalric as Thomas the writer and Emmanuelle Seigner as Vanda, the audition drop-in who seems to know more about the S&M-themed play than its author. “I flipped through (your play) on the train,” she tells him, smiling. The setting is a rundown theater off the Champs-Elysées.
Possible theories as to why Polanski committed to this stage-locked project:
√ At 80, Polanski lacks the stamina to go on location and tackle something more physical. As William Wyler once noted, “the first thing to go are the legs.” Remember, John Huston, tethered to an oxygen bottle at age 81, oversaw the pocket adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and the prolific Robert Altman, also 81, closed out his career with “The Prairie Home Companion,” filmed, like “Venus,” in a dusty theater.
√ Polanski is treading water. A small, uncomplicated film buys the director, no stranger to big productions (see “Tess” and “The Pianist”), additional pre-production time on his next labor of love, which may be about Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer accused of treason. That film, to be shot in Kraków, should have a bigger budget than his last two films combined.
√ Nepotism. The ballsy Vanda ‒ part street urchin, part cagey seductress ‒ is played by the director’s wife, who has appeared in Polanski’s “Frantic,” “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” and, later, again opposite Amalric, in Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Seigner works a lot, but she has yet to have a breakout role. “Venus in Fur” calls for a shameless tour-de-force. Seigner, playing an actress, holds center stage throughout, teasing, testing and finally seducing the pretentious Thomas (his ringtone is the “1812 Overture”).
√ It tickled Polanski’s funny bone. Since his days as a student filmmaker at Lodz Film School, Polanski has shown a penchant for perverse humor. “Venus in Fur” includes a number of amusing ripostes. When Vanda becomes Venus/Aphrodite, she lounges on a couch, purring, “I must be naked ‒ it comes with the territory.”
√ It’s semi-autobiographical. Ives’s play-within-a-play is based on the writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom submissive sex or masochism is named. A number of Polanski’s films, dating to “Knife in the Water” and including “Macbeth” and “The Tenant,” have been sadomasochistic mind-games. Here, the playwright, mouthing Sacher-Masoch, owns up to a predilection for young girls and bondage. Root cause? A domineering aunt who caned Thomas ‒ rather, Leopold ‒ when he was a young boy. Ah, then the play is about child abuse, Vanda interjects. “Why diminish everything ‒ it’s about more than child abuse!” Thomas defends the source novella as “a central text of world literature.” Vanda scoffs, “(It) looks like porn to me.”
Amalric, last seen in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is a dead ringer for the young Polanski. You’re welcome to think of him as the director’s proxy, addressing those armchair shrinks who continue to analyze Polanski’s films vis-à-vis his criminal past (he fled the U.S. in 1977, after pleading guilty to “unlawful sex” with a 13-year-old girl).
√ It’s a playful response to those who continue to liken Polanski to a “dictatorial” Hitchcock or Von Stroheim. Vanda’s winking response as Thomas apologizes for being so intractable: “You’re the director, it’s your job to torture actors.”
√ It’s a defense against lingering charges of Old World misogyny. Vanda cuts through Thomas’s bullshit. His play, she insists, is an anti-feminist tract … “an insult to women. Pornography. You thought you could dupe some idiot actress? Use her to satisfy your sick needs?” Here the cagey Polanski echoes his fiercest critics.
VENUS IN FUR ✮✮✮ With Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric. Directed by Roman Polanski; scripted by Polanski and David Ives from Ives’s play. 96 min. Unrated (could be R for language, fleeting nudity, adult subject matter)