"Venus in Fur," a whip-smart dissection of gender politics via some teasing S&M, is arch. So arch in fact that it is surprising it's a Roman Polanski film.
The director has spent a great deal of creative energy over the course of his career exploring the dark side of punishing psychosexuality in various settings through films such as "Bitter Moon," "Rosemary's Baby" and the classic "my sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter" slap, slap, slap of "Chinatown."
"Venus" isn't frothy by any stretch. But it is a caustic, comic, cerebral romp for a long time before it hits you with its best shot -- some Polanski-worthy darkness.
The film is an interesting choice for the director beyond its comedy aspects. After Polanski's dreadful go at adapting a play in 2011 -- when he took the brilliantly acerbic "Carnage" and massacred it on the big screen -- it takes a certain moxie to go back, at least metaphorically, to the scene of the crime.
Here he takes up residence in a theater for a brisk 96 minutes, never moving his players outside of its walls, never needing to. "Venus" feels every bit a film, not a filmed stage production.
He's made a near-perfect match between the material -- David Ives' play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's infamous novella, which the playwright worked with Polanski to adapt for the screen -- and its cast of two. Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner in the role of Thomas and Vanda, a playwright and an actress, happen to prove extraordinarily adept at intellectually and emotionally torturing each other over the question of whether sadomasochism and love can co-exist, indeed if pain and pleasure are interdependent.
The idea of a running debate over the value of S&M between two people in one place might sound dreary, but the dialogue is clever, and the actors' chemistry is electric. The current coursing between them feels as if it could do damage at any moment. That their interplay is in French with English subtitles might seem a mark against the film, too. But honestly, the conversation is so fast, and its repartee so stinging that the running line of words on screen ensures nothing is missed.
You may know the French actor Amalric for his remarkably vibrant portrayal of a paralyzed magazine editor blinking out his memoir in Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." In "Venus," his Thomas is the writer and director of the play being cast. He's an arrogant misogynist whose romantic drama, also called "Venus in Fur," both idealizes and despises women.
Seigner, who played Amalric's ex-lover and the mother of his children in "Diving Bell," is Vanda, an actress who's shown up late and is a bit too perfect for the part -- a character also named Vanda. The actress brings a lush sensuality to the role, a ripeness that she wears casually, a sense of knowing precisely the effect she's having on Thomas. In contrast, Thomas, in Amalric's hands, has an air of decay and disappointment hanging about him, an ego desperate to be stroked, and delighted to finally be in charge.
Their dissonance is ideal for this dance around the issue of who's on top, and yes, I mean that in all senses. If nothing else, the fact that Seigner is Polanski's wife and Amalric bears a striking resemblance to the director adds a note of intrigue or irony or discomfort, depending on how you choose to factor it in.
A sudden entrance
"Venus" opens with the theater empty but for Thomas, on his cell, pacing, exasperatedly recounting the day he's spent listening to bad actresses read for the role. Vanda rushes in, soaked by a downpour, hours late for her audition, insisting that he let her read for the role regardless. Her pleas are dropped along with her coat. She's wearing a scanty black-leather ensemble -- bustier and mini -- and a dog collar.
It takes prodding, but Vanda gets her way, and then the true tragicomedy begins to unfold. She's brought a dress, a light Victorian frock, that might suit the character, and when she slips it on, Vanda becomes Vanda as Thomas imagined her. And just as suddenly we are catapulted along with him down the rabbit hole. Seigner is mesmerizing to watch slip in and out of character, moving between the Vanda of the play and the Vanda's who's auditioning so seamlessly it makes your head spin.
With Pawel Edelman as director of photography, art direction by Bruno Via, set decoration by Philippe Cord'homme and music by Alexandre Desplat, the staging is slight but effective. Though Vanda and Thomas' master-slave exchanges are the heart of the play, thematically the theater itself and the relationship between actor and director is toyed with. Having the pair work with whatever discarded prop is at hand underscores the power of performance and directing in creating a mood.
So much is up for discussion in that darkened theater; the film's gravitational center is constantly shifting, and the balance of power as well -- Vanda increasingly in charge, Thomas increasingly at her mercy. In this case, the theater walls are not constricting but cocooning, exactly the right setting for a story of such intimacy, such heightened sexuality, such emotional exposure.
And a sure-handed Polanski knows exactly how to play the assignation.
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner
Director: Roman Polanski
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes