From the beginning of his cinematic career − one of the most important in film history since the 1960s − Roman Polanski aimed to make films set in a single location and featuring a small number of characters. This was already true of his first long picture, the 1962 “Knife in the Water,” an internationally acclaimed film that took place entirely on a boat and involved only three characters. Even when his films had a larger cast − and most of them did − the setting has functioned as a character in its own right; consider, for example, the apartments in “Repulsion,” “Cul-de-sac,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant” and the masterful second half of “The Pianist.”
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“Venus in Fur,” Polanski’s latest, follows the example of “Knife in the Water” and of his next-to-last picture, “Carnage,” in that it takes place entirely in one location, with the exception of the opening and concluding shots. It is also his second movie in a row to be based on a play. “Carnage,” adapted from a play by Yasmina Reza, was set entirely inside a New York apartment where four characters meet, and in “Venus in Fur” the number goes down to two. The movie is based on a play by American playwright David Ives, which opened off-Broadway in 2010 and was successful enough to go on to a Broadway run. Ives helped Polanski transport the story to France and turn it into a screenplay.
A beautiful opening shot leads us along a Paris boulevard on a rainy evening into a theater, on whose stage stands the highly agitated Thomas (Mathieu Amalric). He is at the end of a long day auditioning actresses for his new play, an adaptation of the 1870 Austrian novella “Venus in Fur” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name gave us the term “masochism”). Just as he is about to leave the theater, despondent and frustrated, a woman with a disheveled, even cheap appearance (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife since 1989 and the mother of his two children) bursts in and demands an audition. Thomas adamantly refuses at first: the woman looks nothing like his vision of the novella’s heroine. But something about her appeals to him, especially when he learns that her name, Vanda, is the same as the heroine’s and that she knows the play by heart.
Many of Polanski’s movies have dealt with the clash between different systems of power, especially those between men and women. “Venus in Fur” brings this dimension of Polanski’s work to a condensed and refined peak. This time the clash is not just between a man and a woman, but between a director and an actress, and it points to the aggressive dimensions of that relationship. Most of the movie is a witty, energetic account of the struggle for control that unfolds between Thomas and Vanda, a struggle that becomes increasingly sadomasochistic.
This struggle is derived from the play, which is itself based on the novella about the sadomasochistic relationship of two aristocrats in mid-19th-century Austria. But the value of the movie (and probably of Ives’ play as well) is that it offers more than a schematic reflection of this plot material. Rather, the film becomes a clever, sophisticated debate of what the original means in a contemporary reality, which at first means the reality of the creative process, but then extends more broadly to contemporary relations between men and women.
Polanski, who turned 80 in August, makes this debate both aggressive and amused. Despite the limited physical space and cast of only two, we follow the shifts in power between Thomas and Vanda with suspense and pleasure. These shifts are indicated for us with the ironic, somewhat cruel subtlety that defines most of Polanski’s work. The movie would not have succeeded without the two excellent leads. Mathieu Amalric’s talents have long been proven; he has won three Cesar Awards to date, including for his 2007 performance in Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” He has also demonstrated his abilities behind the camera, winning the Director’s Prize at Cannes in 2010 for his film “On Tour.”
Emmanuelle Seigner has taken longer to gain recognition. When she starred in Polanski’s “Frantic” in 1998 (alongside Harrison Ford) and then in “Bitter Moon” in 1992, some claimed that she only got the roles thanks to her relationship with the director. Still, even then she had a powerful, poignant presence, and over the years she has demonstrated her abilities, even if she has not really become one of France’s major film stars. Watching her in “Venus in Fur,” I got the feeling that maybe Polanski made the movie for her, as a tribute of his love and appreciation, giving her a role that emphasizes all of her gifts as an actress; perhaps the part she plays here also says something about the not-so-easy life alongside her director husband. This feeling added another level to the movie for me, and made it an even more compelling and enjoyable experience.
Venus in Fur Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Roman Polanski, David Ives, based on the play byDavid Ives; with Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner