Venus in Fur
(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.