Skip to main content

Hail, Aphrodite.

Venus in Fur
(2013)

(SPOILERS) A film based on a meticulously self-regarding play about a meticulously self-regarding playwright hoisted by his own petard. Is that clever? Or is it merely pretentious? The problem with Roman Polanski’s latest is that it has the bearing and disposition of a thematically rich, thought-provoking piece about the follies of self-delusion and intellectualised misogyny, but it has only so much it can do with a premise announced in the title. Once Venus in Fur has played its cards, by the mid-point, there are no fresh avenues to run through. The film devolves a mildly intriguing indulgence into a ponderous one.


Which is not to devalue the good work done here. Rather, Polanski is unable to surmount the limitations of David Iver’s Broadway play. This is a two-hander, ostensibly concerning tired director Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric) who, at the end of long day fruitlessly auditioning potentials for the female lead in his play, reluctantly gives the loud, vulgar, and very late Vanda (Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner) a chance to read (after much persistence on her part). As that description suggests, the result is an overtly theatrical piece, embedded in performance, writing and role-play. It brings to mind the kind of author who can only make his protagonists writers. The action is located entirely within a theatre, aside from the opening and closing tracking shots that approach and leave the building. Polanki has long favoured claustrophobic environments, but this one only ever exerts the fey tension of protagonists locked in the trance of performance.


Amalric, who, as every reviewers has noted, bears a resemblance to a young Polanski, and Seigner inhabit their roles with unaffected confidence. The manner in which the switches from playing Thomas and Vanda to playing Thomas and Vanda playing Severin and Wanda (the beyond coincidence parallel between her name and that of her character is a clue as to what is going on right from the start and, once it’s clear Vanda knows the play back-to-front, there’s no doubt whatsoever) is initially clearly marked. But there is an increased blurring of lines as they improvise dialogue and scenes, and provide commentary on the text; at first this is a provocative development, but it all to quickly becomes predictable. At the end it is revealed that Vanda herself is a performance, but we knew that, and when there are reversals (she also takes on the role of Thomas’ fiancé at one point, while Thomas takes the role of Wanda) Ives is being considerably less resonant than he probably thinks it is. He also can’t resist showering it with literary references (Euripides’ The Bacchae is mentioned and Thomas’ subjugation as a woman, by a woman, appears to be echoing Pentheus’ fate therein).


Thomas has adapted Venus in Furs, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel (the 1969 Italian film of the same title is based more literally and lasciviously on the same), whose writings led psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing to invent the term sado-masochism. In Thomas’ version, Severin develops his fetish for fur after an encounter with an aunt and a cane and said item of apparel. He has a resulting desire to be dominated by women, and the woman who dominates him, Wanda, in turn develops the desire to submit to another man. Vanda, whose instantaneous transformation into Wanda completely disarms Thomas (it is clear from this point hat he will be putty in her hands; again Ives has written something that is rote rather than challenging or surprising), immediately identifies his work as S&M, to which he replies “Not exactly, it’s set in 1870”. The veneer of artistic integrity has enabled Thomas to justify his predilections. When Vanda further offers the condemnation that the play is about child abuse, he rages “This goddam mania these days! Everything is a social issue!” She shows further insights into Thomas’ own kinks involving a formative encounter with a feline and belittles his warped hubris (“You should marry a raccoon”). As their interplay develops, Thomas is drawn further and further in to a scenario of Vanda’s devising.


From the first, she calls Thomas out for his misogyny. He has prefaced his play with a quote from the apocryphal Book of Judith (“And the lord have smitten him… and delivered him into a woman’s hands”). Thomas reply is that it is just a quote, he didn’t write it, but she sees the truth and intent behind his protestations that “The play has nothing to do with me”.  We hear his contempt for the women who auditioned and his aggressive outburst at Vanda when she disagrees with him; Thomas embodies a cultured façade of artistic expression, fuelled by an underlying degradation of women.


There’s potential here for an insightful discussion of sexual mores, attitudes and politics. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between play and role, and Vanda’s chorus-like commentary on Thomas’ true motives, (perversion or passion) is painfully schematic. Two-handers can work on screen, both those that come from theatrical places (My Dinner with Andre) and those that adjust the canvas of existing plays (Sleuth). The latter came to mind watching Venus, mainly due to juggling of performance and shifting of authority that occurs between the lead characters. But that picture relied on twists and reveals and BIG performances to surmount its stage origins. Venus wallows in them, despite Polanski’s subtle and unintrusive direction.


There’s also a nagging doubt regarding the director’s motives. He casts his wife (who also appeared for him in Frantic, The Ninth Gate and the psycho-sexual froth that is Bitter Moon) and a leading man who resembles him. His director protagonist is accused of depraved sexual attitudes and dismisses assertions regarding child abuse. Is this Polanski’s self-conscious attempt to gain some moral high ground, to put himself on the side of the angels, by addressing the beast within apparently refined men? That by having his wife punish “him”, exposing his festering aberrance, he is atoning? I don’t know, but there’s something rather disingenuous about the whole project.


More than that, however, the film just isn’t that stimulating (intellectually). Vanda’s slow but sure steering of Thomas to his moral reckoning is played out with an analytical precision but lacks bite in its statements; they are delivered as imperatives against an already defeated self-aggrandiser. This feels like a minor diversion for Polanski, whose last picture Carnage, also an adaptation of a stage play but one that betrays its theatrical source much less shamelessly, carries an energy and drive and wit Venus in Fur lacks (there are occasional amusing lines or digressions here, but the construction is essentially a starched, affectation). Perhaps Polanski thought he was onto a good thing (he made good fists of both Death and the Maiden and Macbeth, after all), but unfortunately there’s never any sense of why he thought this would make a good big screen adaptation.



Comments

  1. A leaflet can be an extraordinary special instrument, whether it is for is a land posting, a public expo freebee, an information sheet, or another application. The most expert and eye-getting leaflets are typically those that are full shading. http://www.mordocrosswords.com/2016/11/venus-in-fur-playwright-david.html

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite