Venus in Fur: Polanski’s Power Games

venus_in_fur_poster“Venus in Fur,” Roman Polanski’s adaptation of American playwright David Ives’ Tony Award-winning play of the same name, is a sporadically witty, always entertaining chamber piece for two.

The movie is getting rave reviews, and while I find it a better film than Polanski’s previous work, “Carnage,” which was also a transfer from stage to screen, my response is positive but not enthusiastic due to the fact that it’s not particularly deep–or erotically charged, as one would expect.

The film world premiered to positive critical response at the 2013 Cannes Film Fest, and IFC is releasing it  a year later in the U.S. , on June 20, 2014, in a platform mode and VOD.

An expert in depicting how human beings conduct power and sexual mind-games, especially in confined and claustrophobic spaces, Polanksi revisits issues that have concerned him ever since his 1965 masterpiece, “Repulsion,” starring Catherine Deneuve.

Thematically, “Venus in Fur” is a good companion piece to “Death and the Maiden,” which Polanski adapted to the big screen twenty years ago, though the new film lacks the overt political dimensions of the 1994 picture, which starred Sigourney Weaver (on stage, the role was played by Glenn Close).

venus_in_fur_9“Venus in Fur,” which premiered Off Broadway in 2010 and then transferred uptown in 2011, boasted a great performance by Nina Arianda, who won a Tony Award for her role, now played by the French actress, Emmanuelle Seigner, who’s Polanski’s real wife.  The male lead in this tense, intimate drama is played by French actor and directir Mathieu Amalric (who looks a bit like the young Polanski).

This casting makes the film’s subtext richer and more personal, encouraging viewers to speculate about the complex relationship of the director with his own, much much younger wife.

As director, Polanski is very generous to Seigner and Amalric, handing them witty roles and showing extreme trust and confidence in endowing the material with strong performances, which often rely on long monologues.

venus_in_fur_8The story is told from the POV of Vanda (Seigner), an actress who arrives at a theater late for an audition, after the rest of the staff have left.  The only one present is the playwright-director, Thomas Novachek (Amalric) , who initially comes across as an angry misogynist.

The interaction takes place on the set of a Belgian musical version of Stagecoach.  Thomas has been attempting to cast his play, adapted from the 1870 Austrian groundbreaking novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

venus_in_fur_5Alone in a theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas complains that no actress he’s seen so far has what it takes to play the lead female character, a woman who enters into an agreement with her male counterpart to dominate him as her slave.

Thomas is about to leave the theater, when the aggressive actress Vanda bursts in a whirlwind of erratic energy.  At first she seems to embody everything Thomas has been wanting. She is pushy, foul-mouthed, desperate and ill-prepared.  

venus_in_fur_6When Thomas finally, reluctantly, agrees to let her try out for the part, he is stunned by her transformation. Not only is Vanda a perfect fit (even sharing the character’s name), but she apparently has researched the role exhaustively, learned her lines by heart and even bought her own props.  

The likeness proves to be much more than a random fact.  As the extended “audition” progresses, Thomas moves from attraction to obsession until the balance of power shifts completely.

Credits

Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric

Produced by RP Productions, Monolith Films, in association with Manon 3, Mars Films

Director: Roman Polanski

Screenwriter: David Ives, Roman Polanski, based on the play by Ives; French translation by Abel Gerschenfeld

Producers: Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde

Director of photography: Pawel Edelman

Production designer: Jean Rabasse

Music: Alexandre Desplat

Editors: Margot Meynier, Herve de Luze

Costume designer: Dinah Colin

Running time: 96 minutes.