Venus in Fur (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, sensuality, and language
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski, David Ives (based on his play)
Review published June 20, 2014
The Tony-winning David Ives' Broadway play of 2011 provides most of the backbone of this adept adaptation from co-writer and director Roman Polanski (The Pianist, The Ninth Gate), who would pick up a Cesar award for Best Direction for his efforts in his first full French-language film.
The play (and this movie) is a two-person cast which features Thomas Novachek (Amalric, The Grand Budapest Hotel), a haughty theater director who has grown weary and cynical dealing with the shallow and self-centered kinds of actresses in this line of work, when he is visited by perhaps another example in Vanda Jordan (Seigner, Giallo), who has come to audition for the role of her 'love goddess' namesake in his latest adaptation. The play he is struggling to produce is an adaptation of the classic Austrian novel of 1870 called "Venus in Furs", by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name eventually provides the meaning of the word "masochism"). Thomas reluctantly allows for Vanda to do a read-through of the play, thinking she's yet another ditzy actress, but eventually she reveals herself to be more strong-willed than originally let on, and the power play between the two begins to mirror that within the novel itself.
Mathieu Amalric is superb as the emotionally frustrated and conflicted director, who isn't too dissimilar in appearance from Polanski in his younger days. French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who is also Polanski's wife and frequent muse herself, is in full lock step with her engaging performance, perhaps the best of her career. It's a movie that seems to echo the Ives play that echoes the fictional play within it, that itself is echoing the Sacher-Masoch novel, which then echoes that Austrian author's own life experiences. One of the brilliant things about it is how each twist and turn seems to be commenting on all of these layers at once.
Although Polanski's movie is every bit the filmed stage play that is done as one long act in "real time", it never suffers from its lack of locale or its inherently talky script, thanks to the strengths of the director's camera movements and the two commanding performances at the heart of the piece. It's his second straight filmed stage play (and his third overall, after Death and the Maiden), coming after 2011's less-successful effort, Carnage, and he's definitely developed the knack for translating the play's vibe to the silver screen. With a brilliantly effective score by Alexander Desplat (Godzilla, Monuments Men), it comes together in a satisfying cinematic way despite its one-set limitation.
Venus in Fur is a very well scripted dialogue between people who explore the nature of sexual politics, especially in how sexuality can be used to not only ensnare due to wanton desire, but also to inspire someone to do things they might not have the impetus to do on their own, in pursuit of the possession of someone else (or to be possessed by them). It's a perversely fascinating and smart look at the identity of a 'muse' in the creation of great works, leaving to our own imagination whether Vanda is a real actress, a projection of Thomas's imagination, or, in reality, a muse or goddess herself. Or in how much Thomas resembles, not only in appearance but in his characterization, director Polanski and his own dynamic with the ravishing model-turned-actress Seigner.
©2014 Vince Leo