It is hard to dispute Roman Polanski’s status as one of the great directors of the last 40+ years. Having been responsible for the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and the Academy Award-winning The Pianist amongst more than 20 feature film releases, it is unfortunate that the trials and tribulations of his personal life – from the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family to his fleeing America accused of statutory rape – have tended to overshadow his achievements as a filmmaker, which is perhaps understandable to a certain extent. Working exclusively in Europe since the late 1970’s, Polanski has continued to produce high quality films, seemingly free to set his own agenda with regard to the types of stories he wants to tell and how he wants to tell them.
Following in the vein of his previous film Carnage, Polanski has pared things back even further with Venus in Fur, a two-hander in which an actress attempts to convince a theatre director that she is perfect for the lead in his upcoming production. With only two characters and just one location, Venus in Fur is a slow burn of a film that eventually leaves you trying to remember the exact moment when the tables are turned in this psychological face-off. Adapted from a stage play by David Ives, Venus in Fur is set in a Paris theatre where frustrated director Thomas (Matthew Amalric) has spent the day auditioning actresses for a stage version of Venus in Furs, an 1870 novella by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch that explores sexual submission and sadomasochism. Thomas is very dismissive of Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) when she arrives late for her audition looking like a bag lady; chewing gum, soaked from the rain and wearing tacky fetish clobber. Not surprisingly given his frustration with the actresses he has already auditioned during the day – articulated in a phone rant to his fiancé prior to Vanda’s arrival – Thomas declares that Vanda is unsuitable for the part.
Very much like Carnage, this film emphasises dialogue over action and relies on the verbal interplay between the characters to hold your attention. Initially you are waiting for a change in scenery, but when you realise that it is never coming, you can settle in for the ride as Vanda, who initially presents as crude, ditzy and dumb, sets about convincing Thomas that she is the right person for the role. Whilst he tries to brush her off quickly, Thomas is enamored by the fact that her name is the same as the role for which she’s auditioning, not to mention the fact that she has somehow secured a complete copy of the script, which she has memorised in its entirety. When Thomas finally accedes to her demands for an opportunity to audition, the fun begins as the two lock horns over the material. Slowly but surely their relationship changes as Vanda challenges Thomas’ vision for the play and the nature of the material itself. There are extended monologues and myriad scenes of Vanda and Thomas acting out various passages from the play. After a while the fictional characters conflate with their real selves and Thomas undergoes of revelation of sorts; falling under Vanda’s spell and embarking on a journey of self-discovery.
There is much more to Vanda than meets the eye as she morphs from harried hopeful to somebody very much in control. I mean, she just happens to have brought some suitable props, including an authentic 19th-century jacket that fits Thomas perfectly. Both performers are solid, but it is Seigner – Polanski’s wife of 25 years – who shines brightest, bringing a real verve to Vanda that is at odds with Thomas’ staid, dismissive demeanour. Vanda is desperate to put the arrogant, misogynistic Thomas in his place, the whole plan having seemingly been hatched long before she arrived at the theatre. This is a thought provoking meditation on performance, interpretation and sexual politics. Polanski handles it with a light touch and the film never becomes bogged down by earnestness, using lighting, camera movement, costuming and set design to keep the story moving within the confines of the theatre space.