Venus in Fur, the new film from director Roman Polanski, is the filmmaker’s second straight adaptation of a stage play, following Carnage a couple of years back. Based on the Tony-winning play by David Ives, Venus in Fur introduces us to frazzled, distracted playwright/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), who is staging his own version of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs but cannot find the right actress to play the leading role of Wanda. As he is about to leave the theater after a long day of fruitless auditions, a hot mess who happens to be named Vanda (played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives late and begs for a chance to audition. Despite his misgivings about this foul-mouthed and seemingly dim-witted hopeful, Thomas agrees to give her a chance – only to have his night and life transformed.
Vanda, you see, is not what she appears to be on the surface: not only does she know the play extremely well, but she performs the scenes perfectly, to Thomas’ amazement, and has her own sharp insights into the material. That wonder turns to attraction and then – paralleling the text itself, which is about a man who allows himself to be degraded and made into a slave by a woman he adores – submission, as Vanda takes control of the situation and begins to manipulate Thomas with her personality shifting constantly. As the two read sections from Thomas’ play, reality and fiction begin to blur. Are they Thomas and Vanda, or Severin and Wanda, the actual characters they are playing?
Plays turned into movies can be constricted on the screen – a problem that Polanski faced in both Carnage and this film, which is set almost entirely inside the theater and mainly on the stage. But for the first half of the movie, the director’s usual brilliant eye for composition and the increasingly electric and even erotic interaction between his two stars keeps any claustrophobia at bay. The situation and themes are neatly laid out and the battle lines drawn, and it’s fascinating to see the balance of power rock back and forth between Thomas and Vanda as they weave in and out (mostly thanks to Vanda) of the play, which complicates the dynamics further. It is clear that Thomas is not just seeking the perfect Vanda for his show, but in his own life.
And that’s kind of where the wheels come off. Because once it’s established that Thomas and Vanda are in fact enacting their own personal version of Venus in Furs, all the film does is thrust our leads into increasingly stagey and silly scenarios that further Thomas’ total submission to his muse and render any give-and-take between the sexes almost juvenile. As the discussion begins to go around and around, Polanski seems to have no choice but to bring in more flamboyant twists to keep things moving. As the film ended, my immediate thought was that this was the first time I had watched a Roman Polanski movie turn into something by another director – in this case, British bad boy Ken Russell.
With the whole movie on their shoulders, Seigner and Amalric fare well in the early going. Even if Seigner plays the “real” Vanda a little broadly, she handles the sometimes dizzying transitions between the “real” and “play” characters smoothly, and brings a frank, ripe sexual confidence to her performances that many younger actresses couldn’t convey (part of Thomas’ problem in finding a lead, as well). Amalric is his usual coiled and guarded self, gradually stripping away the layers of control and civility, and the fact that he closely resembles the young Polanski himself only makes the meta aspects of the film more obvious.
But all both actors can do in the latter stages of the film is hold on as things get weirder and more heavy-handed, and while the theatrics might have worked well on the stage, they are less effective and more hammer-like on the screen. Regardless of the play’s pedigree, however, the film is a minor and finally frustrating work. Venus in Fur is not without interest – its themes are a natural for Polanski, the actors are both compelling, and anything this director makes is worth a look no matter what – but, unlike the play’s protagonist, I could never fully submit to it.
Venus in Fur is out now in limited release.