Writers: Roman Polanski, David Ives
Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Running time: 96mins
The lowdown: In his 80th year, Roman Polanski shows little sign of succumbing to dull good taste with this witty, erotic and Palme D’Or nominated reworking of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s naughty 19th century tale of tall boots and long whips. Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric are on bold form as a feisty actress and self-important director condensing the sex war into a 90 minute audition. After the bitter treats of Carnage, Polanski again demonstrates his filmmaking alchemy for turning chamber-piece stage plays into silver screen delights.
The full verdict: Those complaining about two stage adaptations in a row should remember Roman Polanski typically works best confined to enclosed spaces. Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Cul-de-Sac, The Tenant and Death and the Maiden all limit action to a largely single location, better to feast on the warped meat of the characters’ minds.
And Venus in Fur (co-adapted from the original play with author David Ives) is solid, psychosexual Polanski stomping ground. This is after all the man who with Repulsion gave cinema its first (offscreen) orgasm and literally depicted a horny Devil in Rosemary’s Baby.
Any single-set, male-female two-hander is going to see swings in power before the final curtain falls and Venus in Fur, through clever plotting and daring shifts of tone, ends with the actress and the director in very different places to where they began.
There also seems to be a generous slab of autobiography here. Seigner is Polanski’s wife of twenty-five years and Amalric a dead ringer for the director in his glory days.
As Vanda, Seigner eviscerates Amalric’s Thomas for his uncritical embrace of the politics in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, accusing him of exploiting women for private thrills and commercial gain, brickbats that have been previously slung Polanski’s way.
Thomas’ bemoaning of readings of his work as child abuse allegories is fascinating but uncomfortable. Polanski’s statutory rape of a teenager in the 1970s a stain the director acknowledges will never be gone.
Then there is the question of how much power directors have over actors. Vanda is an independent livewire (as presumably is Seigner), and who is directing who becomes a particularly blurred line as the film shifts into arguably supernatural territory for a memorable conclusion.
Too rarified to break out the arthouse circuit and missing the star wattage of Carnage or The Ghost, this is nonetheless essential viewing for Polanski fans.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch famously gave his name to masochism. There’s no pain to be had enjoying this provocative, excellently acted movie.