Emmanuelle Seigner dog-collars Mathieu Amalric in "Venus in Fur." Credit: Guy Ferandis
‘Venus in Fur’ Director: Roman Polanski Stars: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric Rating: R 4 (out of 5) Globes
All of Roman Polanski’s films concern power plays and subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation, enacted by a species trying poorly to conceal its worst instincts. In his latest, “Venus in Fur,” the power play definitely isn’t subtle. Based on David Ives’ play — and relocated from New York City to Paris — it concerns a director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), mounting a production of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs,” a classic of BDSM literature perhaps best known these days for inspiring a Velvet Underground song. About to head home on a stormy evening, he’s surprised by Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), an actress who insists he let her audition. After all, she brought her own leather.
At first Thomas, the despotic employer with no time or patience for fluttery thespians, has the upper hand. Once Vanda proves shockingly adept at the role, so much so that she seems possessed, the tables turn. They stay turned, but there’s still much to chew on — many layers of deconstruction. Sacher-Masoch’s novel depicts a man demanding to become the slave of the woman he desires. Vanda relentlessly hops from inside the zone to outside of it, embodying the part with her every fiber one second, then suddenly jumping out to point out its unthinking sexism.
The combination of verbal tete-a-tetes, classism and actual bondage don’t leave much to the imagination. But if it’s more fun than rigorous, then it is great fun. Polanski’s film adds another level or two to what’s already there. It’s long been commented on how much Amalric resembles the younger Polanski. (Try to find a review of “Munich” that doesn’t call Amalric’s character “Polanski-esuqe.”) Casting the actor not only in his film but as a director AND alongside his real-life wife is almost too much. This also means it’s Polanski’s wife who’s bringing up his harshest criticism, calling into question his long history of torturing pretty and weak women on-screen — from sympathetic portrayals (Catherine Deneuve’s unraveling beauty in “Repulsion”) to the lecherous (Sydne Rome’s usually naked target of physical and sexual abuse in “What?”).
Emmanuelle Seigner luxuriates in the background with Mathieu Amalric's head taking up chief real estate in a split diopter shot in "Venus in Fur." Credit: Guy Ferandis
Seigner’s Vanda is never weak, even before she’s towered over Thomas, physically and psychologically. She’s brassy and vulgar and she storms around the set — a force of nature that had the upper hand all along. (That her introduction is a POV shot looking at Thomas from afar without him knowing it forces us from the start to identify her as both hero and monster — a very Polanski-esque blurring of lines.) Seigner has long been seen as the embodiment of the actress given roles due to her powerful husband (and sometimes only by her powerful husband). And while she’s never been this commanding, she’s always had a cool intelligence, even in the delightfully disreputable “Bitter Moon.”
“Venus in Fur” may be read as a salvo from an actress to be taken seriously and an auto-critique of its maker. But it’s also a master class in how to direct a play. Polanski felt cramped by the Brooklyn apartment-set “Carnage,” and he relishes in filming in a spacious theater. It's a cavernous space of the mind, though still too small to contain both Seigner’s outsized (but never hammy) performance and the ideas bouncing recklessly around.