With “Venus in Fur,” veteran filmmaker Roman Polanski orchestrates an intriguing adaptation the Tony Award-winning play by David Ives. Opening with deftly applied misdirection, the film proceeds to seductively weave its web.
Polanski accomplishes quite the hat trick with the French-language drama-comedy. Two characters. One set. But these characters, given virtuoso performances by Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric, fully occupy their modest theater’s stage on a stormy night in Paris.
Polanski’s film is an adaptation the Ives play that is, in turn, is an adaptation of 19th-century Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella “Venus in Furs.” The play within the movie is a psychological drama full of masochism and fetishes, set in 1870.
Von Sacher-Masoch apparently based the novella on his own life. That can explain why masochism, a word that describes pleasure derived from pain and humiliation, was derived from the writer’s last name.
Amalric plays theater director-writer Thomas. The director has spent an entire day auditioning actresses for a play he has adapted. As the film begins, he’s pacing the stage, speaking to someone on his cell phone, complaining that every actress he’s auditioned is an idiot. No, he tells the person on the other end of the call, the right actress for the role does not exist.
After a tortuous day of auditioning 35 actresses, all of whom he rejected, another actresses arrives at the theater’s door. She’s late. Too late, Thomas insists, to audition.
Seigner co-stars as Vanda, the late-arriving actress who arrives dressed in dominatrix black leather and a dog collar. Thomas asks if she had an appointment. Yes, for 2:15 in the afternoon, Vanda claims. That was hours ago. The director tells her no, don’t bother reading for the part, just go.
Poor Vanda. Heartbroken, she starts packing up. Thomas pities her. He agrees to let her audition. So Vanda gets her way.
Seigner’s Vanda is variously obnoxious, silly and ignorant about the play she’s auditioning for, not to mention art, culture and literature in general. Thomas, understandably frustrated, thinks he’s once again wasting his time. As the evening progresses, he revises his early judgment in subtle degrees.
“Naked on stage?” Vanda tells the director. “No problem. I’ll do that for you for free. As for sado-masochism, I’m familiar with it. I work in theater.”
The chemistry between Seigner and Amalric crackles as Vanda and Thomas engage in their increasingly complex, theatrical duet. It’s a duel of man versus woman, artist versus with critic.
Polanski, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with playwright Ives, and his pair of actors masterfully execute the script’s formidable arc, building to an unanticipated crescendo.