VENUS IN FUR * * * 1 / 2
Starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. Screenplay by Roman Polanski and David Ives. Directed by Roman Polanski.
The actress is late for her audition.
Arriving at the theatre after dark on a stormy night, blowsy, tattooed Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) pleads with harried playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) to let her read for a role in his latest opus – a tony adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s pearl-clutcher Venus In Furs, the 1870 novella that gave masochism its good name and inspired a wicked awesome Velvet Underground song about a hundred years later.
At first the stuffy Thomas can’t imagine allowing this gum-snapping vulgarian to trod upon his precious stage, but remember that this is a film by Roman Polanski — so things are never quite what they appear to be, and cheerful perversity is always the order of the day.
Venus In Fur is a howl. Working from a play by David Ives, Polanski has fashioned a cheeky, very naughty bit of self-mockery about the comeuppance of a pompous artist trying to gussy up his baser instincts with a facade of highbrow culture. Just in case there was any chance of us missing the pseudo-autobiographical bent, he’s cast an actor who could pass as his younger doppelganger (I’ve been crowing for the ferret-faced Amalric to star in a Polanski biopic since Munich) and Emmanuelle Seigner — aka Mrs. Polanski — plays the voluptuous, long-legged instrument of his downfall.
Vanda’s audition is unconventional, to say the least. She shares a name with Sacher-Masoch’s femme fatale but otherwise professes complete ignorance of the source material. Absorbing Thomas’ haughty condescension, Vanda counters with her qualifications: “I’m really demure and shit.”
She ain’t kidding. Seigner is a revelation here, and what’s miraculous about her performance is the way she’s able to shift between aristocrat and streetwalker, usually on a dime. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that our mystery woman knows more than she’s letting on. For starters, she’s already got the play memorized. And she’s brought costumes. No points for guessing which of these two is going to end up kissing the boot of shiny, shiny leather.
As Venus In Fur unspools, Thomas begins reading the role of lovestruck sex slave Severin and the film toggles back and forth between them acting out this period piece and a thoroughly modern deconstruction of the material, with Vanda serving as literary critic, fantasy object and grand inquisitor – all while delivering an audition that brings the director (literally) to his knees.
Tripping over his ego, blinded by snobbery and lust, the poor bastard never had a chance. Polanski takes an impish delight in needling and ultimately eviscerating his stand-in’s hypocrisies. As in his previous picture Carnage –another mercilessly funny stage adaptation– the director elegantly maneuvers his characters around a cramped space and regards their real-time dissolution with a smirk. You could even see Venus In Fur as a belated prequel to Polanski’s unfairly maligned 1992 bondage farce Bitter Moon, which also starred Seigner as an otherworldly sex bomb and presaged what a dirty bugger Hugh Grant turned out to be.
Desire makes buffoons of us all. Now strike dear mistress, and cure his heart.