Roman Polanski’s new film, Venus in Fur, has just been released in the United States in a limited run. The few theatres that this film will be playing in will be the recipients of one of the strongest films about sexual desire to hit theatres in years.
The two-character drama takes place in a rundown theatre just outside Paris. Thomas (played by Mathiew Amalric) is about to return home after a long day of unsuccessful auditions for his new play, Venus in Fur, based on the infamous novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), an actress, arrives late for her audition dressed from head to toe in leather and a dog collar. After some back and forth, Vanda is allowed to audition, despite Thomas’s reservations. Donning a 19th century costume, Vanda proceeds to transform herself into the main character of the play, the Venus in Fur (who is also named Vanda). As they read on, Thomas becomes more intrigued by this mysterious actress who seems to know the play by heart. Stepping into the role of Kusiemski, Thomas allows himself to be stripped down by Vanda, becoming more like Kusiemski as the film develops towards a crashing ending.
The film demonstrates a powerful play about sexual dominance. The two actors have amazing chemistry with one another and the tension that they display is white hot. As the film goes on, the power dynamics switch so that the actress soon begins directing the director. The two argue intelligently about what the play is supposed to mean and what direction the play should go in.
‘It’s S&M porn,’ Vanda says at one point.
‘It’s an important work of world literature,’ Thomas replies, kicking off the same argument over Venus in Fur that has divided readers and critics ever since it was published in 1870.
Thomas becomes more infatuated with Vanda as the film continues. In the play, Kusiemski wishes to be dominated by Vanda, to be her slave. Slowly, Thomas begins to have similar desires, even though he also wants to go out to dinner with his fiancée. In one scene, Thomas lies down on a couch while Vanda dons his jacket, his glasses and holds a copy of the script in a parody of psychoanalysis. She seems to know everything about him, while he knows almost nothing about her. Vanda is elusive, seductive and innately mysterious- both inside and outside of the play.
Polanski’s film may seem like humble fare – only two actors in one location – but it packs more of a punch than most other films out there this season. The intimacy of the film brings more depth to it. You can’t look away or be distracted by things going on in the background; there is no background save a few leftover props from the last show. Polanski has always known how to best create tension between characters in claustrophobic spaces and in this film he has created some of the most charged interactions of his five-decade career.
Seigner gives what is arguably her best performance in her entire career as Vanda. Polanski, who is her husband in real life, is able of bringing out the best of her abilities. As always, the actors are beautifully shot, and Vanda in particular is made to look so ravishing that it is easy to understand why a man would desire to give himself over to her completely. This brings me to one of my favourite details of the film – both actors are almost fifty years old. The film makes no attempt to cover up their age by softening the lighting or choosing only flattering angles. Everything is on display – quite literally in Seigner’s case – and perhaps because of this, the actors look intensely attractive. When Vanda attempts to seduce Thomas on the sofa, we see her subtle beauty dominate the screen – a beauty that no Hollywood film would be able to unlock.
As Thomas, Amalric is by turns hilarious and by turns frustrated and frustrating. Wrapped up in a web of Vanda’s shifting feelings about the play, he is at once intrigued by and disbelieving of Vanda’s talents. Alternating between characters with such intense subtlety until the two begin to bleed into one another, Amalric presents a vision of a man who goes almost too far to find perfection – and discovers that perfection might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
With elements of farce, erotic game playing and literary analysis, Venus in Fur is Polanski’s return to form following a string of films which received mediocre notices from critics and lukewarm audience receptions. Returning to the themes of some of his most famous films, he finds new ways to bring the old school into a new experience. Venus in Fur is top-notch filmmaking of the sort that we haven’t seen for a long time.