Never mess with a goddess. That’s the lesson of Venus in Fur, director Roman Polanski’s frisky and taut film adaptation of the 2010 play by David Ives that brought kink back to Broadway way before Kinky Boots.
Based on the scandalous 1870 novel about pain-as-sexual-pleasure by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (both a name and a namesake for a fetish), Venus in Fur depicts a sex-charged standoff between Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), a self-important theater director, and a mysterious actress named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s real-life wife).
Like the stage play, Polanski keeps the action to one location—an empty theater, this time in Paris rather than New York. After a long day auditioning actresses for his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Thomas kvetches out loud that it is impossible to find a pretty young woman who is classically trained and not as dumb as a box of rocks.
Somebody up on Mt. Olympus must have heard him, because Vanda barges in with a clap of thunder, soaking wet and babbling a sob story about her lateness. Tattooed, gum-chomping and dressed like a hooker, Vanda at first glance seems nobody’s idea of a divine being, much less the poised, 19th century noble from Sacher-Masoch’s novel.
She cajoles Thomas into letting her read—she even pulls a thrift store period gown and smoking jacket out of her bag—and with a twist of her chignon transforms herself into Vanda—coincidence, that—the cool, capricious socialite who takes to fellow aristocrat Severin’s S&M games like a whip to gooseflesh.
Thomas is mesmerized, as are we, the audience. As the play’s Vanda, she is majestically sexual, forbidden and forbidding. She knows the play by heart and seems to have stepped from the pages of the novel like, well, Aphrodite from the sea. But then, in the next moment, she breaks character to become her crude, jocular self, cracking that the novel and the play are “S&M porn” and decrying Thomas’ writing as either corny or sexist.
You can’t argue with her, but the intriguing thing about Venus in Fur is that it is not a polemic about misogyny and ingrained bigotry against women—Oleanna in a garter belt. It is more sophisticated than that, an intricate dialogue about sexual politics and dominion that constantly shifts perspectives between the real and the imagined until the lines are intriguingly blurred.
It’s like playing out a fantasy in a naughty boudoir game. It’s like acting, in a theater.
As the night unfolds, Vanda and Thomas’ relationship gets more complicated and dangerous and they keep morphing into Vanda and Severin and back again, even at one point switching gender roles. The sheer momentum of their face-off leaves you riveted—it is all so risky and dirty and playful and fun.
Adding another disturbing layer is the choice of Polanski as director. He is a sex offender and fugitive from justice living in exile in Paris. He is also a Holocaust survivor with a nightmarish past and his movies have always been riddled with his obsessions with pain, sex and confinement.
Venus in Fur
Original play by David Ives,
film adaptation by Ives and Roman Polanski
Directed by Roman Polanski
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
In theatres: E Street Cinema starting July 11
Also available online VOD
He seems to have inserted himself stage center into Venus in Fur as a third character confronting his well-known personal demons. His wrestling with the Madonna-Whore Complex is embodied in the character of Vanda and Seigner’s bravura performance—all confident sexuality, white-hot intelligence and instinct, as if perpetually two beats ahead of all us mere mortals.
But Polanski is actually seen in Amalric’s doppleganger portrayal. He looks like the director with his bowl-cut hair, big, beseeching eyes and diminutive countenance. Yet he is not just doing an impersonation, making Thomas a snooty intellect unstrung by his desires and predictability.
Together, they swoop and swirl around each other like a wren courting a peacock. The virtuosity of their acting is as exhilarating as Polanski’s painterly camerawork—bold brushwork on a primed canvas.
No doubt Venus in Fur will incite after-movie discussions on what is it truly about. Is it about sexual power and domination? The exquisite paradox of pain and pleasure? Or is it how life and art boil down to playing a part?
Given Seigner’s performance, the film version offers up another possibility—respect the divine in all women. Or else.
Local note: Erica Sullivan received the 2012 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress for Studio Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of the play Venus in Fur.