Venus in Fur is playing this week at Cinemapolis weekdays at 7:10 and 9:15 p.m. and on weekends at 2:15, 7:10 and 9:15 p.m.
Ithaca, N.Y. — “No, she doesn’t exist!” are the first words spoken in Venus in Fur, a twisted and psychologically loaded two-hander directed and co-written by Roman Polanski. The one yelling into his phone is Thomas Novacheck (Matthieu Amalric), a playwright turned director who is frustrated after a long day of auditions and no closer to finding the right actress for his lead role.
Into the theater walks Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner), a boisterous blonde neophyte who Thomas tries to shoo away, though you suspect he would try harder if her dress did not expose such generous cleavage. She is late and, as the thunder and lightning clashing over the orchestra skylight portend, an ominous figure. But she marks her entrance with such a barrage of excuses, jokes and sexual advances both flirtatious and emasculating that you are quick, and right, to assume the only person with the balls to tell her what to do is the one wearing heels.
You will also keep those opening words in the back of your head, and I assure you I’m not peddling spoilers by underlining the film’s tension between reality and fantasy. Based off David Ives’s play of the same name, the screenplay (written by Ives and Polanski) exercises a sort of narrative sleight of hand, slowly taking power away from the neurotic auteur Thomas and giving it to Vanda, who shares the name of the part for which she is auditioning. That play-within-a-movie is Thomas’s “adaptation” of Venus in Furs, a famous 19th century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Regardless of his literary import today, his name lives on through the word “masochism.”
So when Thomas reads the part of Severin — a meek, repressed intellectual who he stresses, again and again, bears no similarities to his own character — Vanda seizes the dominating might of her character. She subjects him to the S&M demanded by the script they each hold in their hands, but she clearly relishes her power all the same. Thomas goes along with the game to surprising lengths, proving himself a talented, if extremely tortured Method actor in contrast to Vanda’s classically-trained, start-and-stop approach. The borders between actor and character begin to dissolve. What untangles and tangles again is a story more intellectually challenging than an Agatha Christine whodunit but just as engaging and devilishly suspenseful. In other words: lots of fun.
That Polanski is, and remains, a great director may come as a surprise to those who confuse direction with flashy cinematography and special effects. The film does open with a gleefully demented tracking shot down a stormy Parisian lane, passing through self-opening doors to the empty theater where the rest of the film remains, but things settle down from there. Shot reverse shot editing combined with dynamic blocking — Thomas walks out of his frame and into Vanda’s, for instance — is a tricky combination, and Polanski pulls it off with his typically dense, formally attentive style. Part of the fun is that there are two directors at play here, in Thomas and the unseen Polanski. So when Thomas interrupts Vanda’s monologue and orders her to take a “position of power” upstage, backpedaling to the spot to make his point, Polanski foregrounds Vanda in the same shot so Thomas looks small and petty — anything but powerful.
It’s tempting to see Thomas as a surrogate for Polanski himself. First off, the physical resemblance is there: short, squirrelly, with squinted eyes and clammy skin. Then, you got the actress playing his on-screen sparring partner: Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife. And Thomas vents about critics reading into the feminist politics and themes of “child abuse” in his work. But as our English teachers have always stressed, the author is not the narrator, and the same goes with the director behind the camera and the actor playing one in front of it. Whatever his personal history, Polanski has long indicted male legacies of domestic violence and female objectification, in such films as Chinatown and Repulsion. This continues in Venus in Fur, where a woman wields most power and the actress playing her gives the most attention-grabbing (and, also, best) performance. The Polanski directing the movie is a more self-aware, self-critical — more mature — artist than his nebbish doppelgänger.
Venus in Fur treads into territory covered by Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, perhaps the only film so far this decade that I have no reservations calling a masterpiece. Similar themes and devices include role-playing, doubling and the authenticity of emotions summoned through acting. If Kiarostami’s understated style perfectly complements his dramatic content, then Polanski’s certainly style comes close. The one downside is when he retreats into absurdism, tearing his characters from their complex, gender-bending intimacy and plopping them into hazier metaphors. We are left with a wild, almost mythological ending that is riveting, but it does not hit close to home, if you follow.
What this film does leave us with is a rather provocative message for any admirer or practitioner of art. Something along the lines of: It is not enough to unload past trauma onto the page, in the form of a three-dimensional character in a movie or a play; you must perform the part, as well. And vice versa. Only by doing both can you work through your problems and exorcise your demons — move on. A film so infatuated with performance, theater and cinema like Venus in Fur sees no other option for this kind of healing. Perhaps an insular way to look at life, as only existing to generate and illuminate art, but for those of us who share this predilection, to whatever degree, Venus in Fur is as cathartic as it is tormenting.