A personal film from Roman Polanski, Venus In Fur is an exhilarating satire featuring intelligent and humorous flurries of dialogue as well as a career-defining performance from Emmanuelle Seigner.
Emmanuelle by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Roman Polanski films have taken a more personal, quietly introspective turn over the course of the past decade; from the quasi-autobiographical The Pianist, to the Charles Dickens classic about a young orphan, Oliver Twist. While The Pianist mirrors the period of his childhood in which he was a prisoner of the Kraków Ghetto during World War II, Oliver Twist is analogous to his subsequent escape and survival as an orphan in Nazi occupied Poland (although following the war he would be reunited with his father). It would be stretching slightly to say that his 2011 film, Carnage, was overly personal, but it’s a fitting addition to a body of work fascinated with claustrophobic conflict. Venus in Fur is perhaps one of his most personal films to date, a microscopic examination of sexuality, obsession and egotism.
Exasperated and alone, director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is preparing to leave a Paris theatre following a day of fruitless auditions for his new play. The play is an adaptation of the 1870’s novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose surname inspired the term sadomasochism), which contains themes of female dominance and sadomasochism. Thomas is looking for a woman that can inhabit Wanda, a character that enters into an agreement with a man to dominate him as her slave. When Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) enters from the blustery Parisian night, Thomas quickly dismisses her brash, chaotic and uncouth manner. With some persistence, Vanda convinces Thomas to allow her to audition – her reading as Wanda and Thomas as Severin, the leading male and willing slave. Vanda appears to morph into character almost too seamlessly, and what follows is a blow for blow battle of the sexes.
Roman Polanski’s latest film is an oddly enjoyable off-kilter and sexually charged chamber piece. Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner are excellently cast as egotistical director and the seemingly naive and topsy turvy actress respectively. Seigner is on career best form as Vanda, chewing up the scenery as well as her co-star in the process. Her transformative performance; from enthusiastic, chaotic and scatter-brained performer to dominant and manipulative femme fatale, is as impressive as it is powerful. By comparison, while Amalric’s performance can sometimes lack subtlety, it remains a lucid and transformative turn as Thomas’ ego subsides to give way to obsession as Vanda seduces him with his own prose. Taking place exclusively on the stage of the theatre, the audition begins under the guise of an audition but fluidly morphs into something completely different as both individuals begin to inhabit the characters they are playing. It’s a clever and enjoyable dynamic that works incredibly well; the juxtaposition between the dialogue from the play with the intensifying attraction and motivations between Vanda and Thomas.
Vanda continuously probes Thomas on the similarities between the plays protagonist, Severin, and the director himself – the accuracy of which becomes increasingly apparent. The not-so-subtle conceit of the film is liberation, sexual liberation, and liberation from the societal norms often dictated by gender. Vanda’s patient and calculated development from bleary-eyed understudy to statuesque and dominant bombshell is truly memorable. Seigner’s costume and hair and makeup design subtly shifting throughout like a chameleon. Thomas is both liberated by the actions of the plays characters they are playing and also in Vanda’s dominance of him. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to a young Polanski, Thomas’ egotistical and sexually repressed director is perhaps the closest that Polanski has come to dealing with his own much-publicised sexual past.
The claustrophobic setting of the film is allayed by a frequent dependence on wide shots – the theatre interior never feels as small as it should, Polanski effortlessly carving a world from the stage and stalls. Opening and closing with languid dolly shots to and from the theatre, cinematographer Pawel Edelman should also be commended for his work on the film. Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist score is used to great effect, setting the tone of the film with an ingenious carnival cue to bookend the film, together with a handful of intricate melodies.
The singular location, the two performer structure and the direction the film takes in the third act will certainly not be to everyones taste. When the playful, frivolous and often sexy interplay is tinged with a more tempestuousness and menacing tone, the film takes a slightly strange twist that may be difficult for some people to stomach. Venus in Fur is however Polanski’s best film since The Pianist, and while it is incomparable in almost every way in sense of scale and emotion, it’s a masterfully directed film from the 80-year old. It harkens back to the intimate and clever dissection of egotism in his debut Knife in the Water, sharing a common thread of dark humour. Phenomenal in the role of Vanda, Seigner is the true star of the show, and with that, Polanski’s story of life imitating art-imitating art, truly succeeds.
Venus in Fur is released on 30th May 2014 in the UK