Venus In Fur opens firmly planted in the cinematic medium, almost revelling in the filmic techniques at its disposal – a point of view camera surges down a gloomy tree-lined avenue in Paris, with suitably dramatic rain, thunder and thundering orchestral music, arriving at a dilapidated old theatre in a less-than-desirable arrondissement, where first-time director Thomas (Matthieu Amalric) is holding auditions for a play he has himself adapted from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, a novel that inspired the term masochism. Our point of view is revealed as Vanda (Emanuelle Seigner), a seemingly ditzy and vulgar aspiring actress dressed in tight leather lingerie and a dog collar, who has arrived late and is desperate to play the leading lady – coincidentally also named Vanda. Thomas is ready to throw it all in and go home to his fiancee after a disappointing day of auditions but Vanda convinces him to let her audition – she’s even brought a 17th century costume, although she keeps the dog collar. With everyone else gone home, Thomas himself must read the role of Severin von Kusiemski, a man with a fetish for pain and degradation who enters into an agreement with Vanda von Dunajew to be her slave for a year. Vanda reveals herself not only to be an incredible actress, but also to have a surprising insight into everything, from having already somehow learnt every word of Thomas’ adaptation (which was not released to the auditionees), how to operate the lighting desk in the theatre, the play characters themselves and their desires, and unnervingly, Thomas’ own life. The further they get into the play and the deeper they get into the characters, the more the roles between the two reverse and blur, with Vanda slowly taking control of the action on stage, until they finally actually swap roles, as actor-director but also as Vanda-Severin, when Amalric finds himself in furs and lipstick playing his own muse. While Severin constantly refers to Vanda as a goddess, her all-knowingness starts to suggest that he might not be too far from the mark, and something of a Chekhov’s Bacchae comes to fruition – a throwaway reference to Euripides’ work is part of Vanda’s surprisingly depth of knowledge but returns later when we see Venus descending to wreak her revenge.
Venus in Fur is sharp, smart and funny throughout, which makes the eventual derailing of the plot particularly disappointing – what begins as an incredibly tight and engaging deconstruction of actor-director relations and the mechanics of adaptation soon loses its way amongst a smorgasbord of issues to explore. At the beginning Polanski is in fine form as film, theatre and literature all interact in a complicated web, and the power play between Vanda and Thomas is captivating. A fantastic first act soon gives way, however, to a somewhat muddled second, leading to a spectacular but confused conclusion, and one could almost wish Ives and Polanski had chosen one point to make, or one issue to explore. Are they addressing the power relationship latent between a director and their muse? The nature of taboo issues in theatre? Sexism as part of the canon? The dangers of adaptation? When you add to this the fact that Seigner is Polanski’s wife, Thomas becomes an even more obvious proxy for Polanski himself, complicating the relations of the film even more (check out some photos of young Polanski and you’ll find there’s even a surprising physical resemblance between the two). The rapid repartee between the two characters is entertaining and multi-layered, but ultimately touches on all of these issues without truly grappling with any of them. In a final scene of alleged punishment, Venus-Vanda strings Thomas up and performs a naked bacchanal dance fit for a maenad. But certain cutaways suggest that Thomas is enjoying himself, enjoying his degradation and domination. So we’re left with an ambiguous resolution as to who really holds the power – the person who dominates or the person choosing to be dominated?
In his third stage-to-screen adaptation (after 2011’s Carnage and 1994’s Death and the Maiden), not to mention his second in a row, Polanski is much more comfortable with the tension between the mediums. Carnage suffered from theatrical contrivances that didn’t translate to film, and was never quite convincing as to why the characters wouldn’t, or couldn’t leave the apartment in which they pushed the boundaries of social etiquette and convention. Where a theatre audience will happily suspend their disbelief, acknowledging the constraints of the setting, cinematic audiences need a little more persuasion. In Venus, however, Polanski delivers, using Vanda’s desperation to audition and Thomas’ desire to explore his own text to hold the characters in the theatre and maintain the borders of the narrative world. Other filmic qualities are used to sustain the tension between the film and its play, with Alexandre Desplat’s exceptional and often whimsical score, after its bombastic entry, only creeping into the scene when the characters are reading the play. A special mention has to go to “Stagecoach: the Musical”, the Belgian production that preceded Thomas’ play and whose props litter the stage, resulting in a fantastically phallic cactus. I can only hope that Stagecoach will one day make it to the stage itself.
The performances are easily the strongest elements of the film – Seigner is an absolute tour de force, effortlessly negotiating the shift between film Vanda and play Vanda until its hard to tell which is the true “character” – although what that itself means becomes less important as the film progresses. Amalric has his own transformation to make when he finds himself playing Vanda, and he balances the gender-cross with equal parts humour and vulnerability, drawing huge laughs while blurring the divisions between the two. This sort of film could easily become a string of in-jokes for theatrical-minded people, but remains consistently accessible, which is a credit to the two actors and their efforts to create narrative credibility in the face of escalating action and deepening dialogues between several conflicting forces.
Despite the ultimately confused nature of the film’s intent, Venus is a gleefully good ride, remaining engaging, smart and funny to its core. Where it falls short on intellectual closure, it more than makes up on entertainment value.
Around the Staff: