Directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist, Carnage), and co-written by Polanski and American playwright David Ives, this film adaptationis based on Ives’ own Broadway play, which itself is inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs. If this sounds like a lot of adaptations, I assure you there are more to come here. Within the film, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), a writer-director of a new adaptation of the novel, finds himself involved in an elaborate audition with an intoxicatingly sexy, aggressively energetic and unrelentingly persistent actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) who shares a name, Vanda, with his lead female character. After surviving the storm outside and arriving wet and disheveled well after Thomas has seen his last audition, she convinces Thomas to give her a chance and read with her. To his surprise she not only shows great understanding of the script and the intricacies of the character but has also brought along her own costumes and props.
As Thomas and Vanda get lost in the script, natural performance interpretation intervenes, additional scenes are written by Thomas at Vanda’s request and the pair simultaneously analyze the text and create yet another an adaptation to Thomas’ own. We begin to see the influence that an actor can have over a writer-director and, more interestingly, a female voice overpowering the exclusively male voice in the history of the novel's adaptation. The privileged, self-entitled male playwright finds himself punished for his skepticism.
The line between the obsessions of the character Thomas is portraying and his own towards Vanda begin to blur, as do the boundaries of the ‘scripted’ exchanges. Vanda’s voluptuous influence turns this initially innocent audition into something quite perverse and unexpected. Revealing more is an inconsiderate disservice.
This is a terrific companion piece to Polanski’s last film Carnage, also based on a play and reliant on the talents of a brilliant cast. In Carnage the four characters, despite the attempts of one couple to leave the hotbed of moral conflict enclosing them all within the same space, end up staying in the company of the other couple, with everyone emotionally unraveling as a result. In the opening minutes of Venus In Fur Thomas also seeks leave, only to be lured back into the theatre. Falling under Vanda’s spell this is the last time he wishes to leave, despite telling his frequently dialing fiancée differently.It is fascinating to watch these two excellent actors, reunited for the first time since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, embroiled in a battle of the sexes within the sexually charged confines of a Parisian theatre.
Polanski has a veteran team, and this extends to the much younger Amalric (Munich)and Polanski’s own wife, Seigner (La Vie En Rose). Seigner, like Amalric, is 48. You would never guess. The film is shot beautifully by Polanski’s regular collaborator Pawel Edelman – he worked with Polanski on The Pianist, The Ghost Writer and Carnage, but his work also includes Aftermath, a harrowing Polish drama I harped on about quite a lot last year. There is an atmosphere of steamy deception, and Polanski’s confined approach rests on Edelman’s ability to frame the pair in interesting ways, and avoid the limitations provided by the stage lighting, tinkered with by Vanda. Polanski’s Academy Award-winning editor (for The Pianist) Herve de Luze’s crisp cutting is quite remarkable, considering the continuity nightmare it must have been.
Venus in Fur premiered in the Official Competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, which means it has taken a while to reach our screens. It was worth the wait. As funny, dense, thought provoking and sexy (yes, very sexy) as it is, one thing is for certain – Mr. Polanski still has it. Has he ever lost it?
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22