Opening on a Parisian street, the camera floats down a tunnel of dark trees, slowly turning when it reaches a theatre, the doors opening before it. Before us Mathieu Amalric‘s Thomas stands, rambling on the phone about how terrible all the actresses had been that day (“dumb actresses”,”dykes”, he’s quite sexist). Enter, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner). Without an appointment and decked out in fetish gear she convinces Thomas to let her test for the play. And so, pardon the pun, the stage for Venus in Furs is set.
Roman Polanski‘s latest is a film drenched in duality. While it all feels very basic and stripped down, taking place entirely over the course of an evening within the confines of the theatre, there’s also a dark, magical quality to everything, starting with the opening shot and lingering on from there. It’s a film adaptation of a play about a fictionalized adaptation of a 19th century bondage novel. Very post-modern.
The duality of the leads is not only obvious in how defensive he is against her free-spirited nature, but also in how they view the source material. To her it’s pure S&M, its author (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) of course being the reason for the term masochism, the 50 Shades of Grey of it’s time if you will, despite Thomas’ (and most definitely other scholars’) insistence that it’s significant work of fiction, not just porn as Vanda poses.
The duo launch into an almost play-length audition, taking place on a stage with leftover props, most prominently a rather phallic cactus, from a musical adaptation of the classic western Stagecoach. The audition process morphs into direction of the play, becoming very push and pull, a collaboration between the two of them. She starts to deconstruct not only the characters and book, but also his adapted play and him in the process. It’s fascinating to watch.
Slowly but surely it comes to pass that there’s something larger going on, something more than a simple weird audition bubbling under the quaint trappings, perhaps even an indictment of how the entertainment industry treats women and the sadism of directors, rather self-reflexive of his profession by Polanski. Revealing anything more would tread too far into the area of spoilers and in this case they would truly live up to their name.
Both actors are tremendous; how Amalric plays the writer’s insecurities with acting at first, very closed off and defensive, before slowly fading into the play’s lead role completely is fantastic while Seigner is mysterious and intriguing. You’re never sure where you have her, what her game is and if what she’s saying is true, she’s somehow simultaneously naive and wise. It’s a devilish performance.
Polanski, working from his own screenplay adaptation of David Ives’ play, does a lot with the simple setup, giving us a thoroughly engrossing film. Little touches like the perfectly placed musical stings, the carefully paced reveals or the brilliantly realized sound effects for invisible props set the film apart and giving it a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.
Polanski’s darkly humorous kammerspiel works wonders due to the winning combination of its leads and the skillful filmmaking. There’s delight in discovery, doubly so in seeking Venus in Furs out.
Good: The feeling when you realize that the film is going to take place in this one theatre, with these two actors.
Better: The cinematography, especially the haunting opening.
Best: The tremendous chemistry and acting by the two leads.