PLOT Frustrated in his efforts to cast the female lead in his adaptation of a seminal text about sado-masochism, playwright Thomas (Amalric) is surprised to find that Vanda (Seigner), one of the auditioning actresses, appears to know the text, and its author, inside out.
There’s a trite cliché in film criticism, which demands that any director adapting a stage play must be lambasted if they fail to “open out” the play, or if the film remains “stage-bound”. That might prove to be a problem for Roman Polanski’s latest film, a Francophone adaptation of David Ives’ celebrated 2010 play, given that the entire film is set in a theatre.
After a frustrating day of auditioning actresses for the lead role in his new play, adapted from the 1870 novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (from whom the term ‘masochism’ is derived), playwright-turned-director Thomas (Amalric) is on the verge of giving up when in walks Vanda (Seigner), who not only has the same name as the character, but already knows the text by heart. As she auditions, with Thomas reading the part of masochist Henri, Vanda begins first to manipulate Thomas, then to dominate him. As the pair flirt, spar and goad each other, the film explores the control dynamic between director and actress (and, by extension, masculine and feminine gender roles), as well as the relationship between an adapter and their chosen subject matter (Masoch’s novella was based on his own sub-dom relationship), an element made more intriguing by the fact that Polanski has explored similar submissive/dominant relationships throughout his career (notably in Bitter Moon), that Amalric bears a striking resemblance to a young Polanski, and that Seigner is his real life wife; anyone who finds such meta-textual interpretation digging may find Venus in Fur as delicious as dissecting a Woody Allen film for clues about the director’s pathology.
As with Polanski’s last film, an adaptation of Yasmin Reza’s play God of Carnage, your enjoyment may depend on your tolerance for talky, stage-bound (there, I said it) think pieces. Taken for what it is, however – an engaging two-handed play, wittily adapted (albeit in French) and tempestuously performed by Amalric and Seigner – Venus in Fur is an enjoyable romp, regardless of how much baggage the audience, or the filmmaker, brings to the table.
VERDICT Polanski’s unavoidably stagey adaptation of David Ives’ celebrated Broadway play is an enjoyably witty two-hander, confined to its theatre setting, yet with much to say about gender roles in the world beyond. ★★★