The last time Roman Polanski directed an adaptation of an acclaimed chamber drama, the result was the less than stellar Carnage (based on The Gods of Carnage), a film with a great pedigree and a wonderful cast that squandered both somewhat spectacularly. A few years later he has returned to the well for a similar project, this time shooting his interpretation of David Ives’ play Venus in Fur, adapted into French by Polanski with the help of Ives himself. Trading four principals in an increasingly claustrophobic apartment for two in a cavernous empty theater indicates Polanski may not be up to the same tricks this time around. He has tapped Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) to be his Thomas, the writer/director of an adaptation of the 1870 novel and prototypical work of erotic sadomasochism from which the play (and the film) derives its name. Frustrated by the lack of daring and quality in the actresses auditioning for the lead role, Thomas is in the process of calling it quits for the night when Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, also of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Polanski’s wife) comes blustering in from the roiling thunderstorm outside, late for an audition Thomas has no knowledge of. She is persistent in getting a shot at the role, and bullies him into one more line reading before he can go home.
Nothing about Vanda should work. It is cute that she has the same name has her character, but her mannerisms are all wrong. Her surface read of the story’s conceit (dismissing it as 19th century S&M porn) infuriates Thomas and influences her over the top lingerie hooker outfit she wears, complete with a dog collar around her neck. She gives off a pointedly unprepared and borderline ignorant vibe, and Thomas appears to be judging this book by its cover. This is all set-up, of course, for Vanda to take him by surprise with her expert and nuanced read of the first three pages, to the point that he refuses to let her stop when they reach their agreed-upon conclusion of the audition. She seems like a dream, having memorized the entire play, bringing an 18th century dress and props with her, and having a working knowledge of lightboards that allows her to create the perfect mise en scene on the stage. She bowls him over, injecting direction and notes and line ideas in the middle of her scenes, effortlessly sliding into the skin of this ingenue turned proto-dominatrix, and shows no compunction regarding challenging Thomas and his relation to the male lead through the director’s and writer’s role. Their dalliance grows into a hybrid of dance and duel, each jockeying for position and dominance within the scope of whatever this audition has become as it threatens to bleed over into something altogether more personal and profound.
Two actors in one scene. Structurally, that is all Venus in Fur is. These two actors are physically dwarfed by the space in which they play, but their performances and personalities are titanic, subsuming the empty stage and seats and threatening to burst the building at its seams. Seigner smolders, radiating sex and a dangerous unpredictability. She disarms Thomas immediately, taking away his power and replacing it with hers instantaneously. Polanski’s camera obsesses over her clothes, her body, her breasts, just as entranced by this force of nature as Thomas has become. And yet she can drop it all at a moment’s notice, breaking the spell for some sarcastic quip or moralizing criticism about the play’s misogyny before wading back in and reclaiming command. She drifts back and forth, swaying in and out from the play to herself and back again without a second thought. It is a remarkable performance filled to the brim with immediacy and necessity; the strength of the enterprise is squarely on her shoulders, and she keeps it aloft as though it were light as a feather. Amalric may have a little less flash to his material than his counterpart, but his work is no less deep under the surface. Thomas is a maelstrom of intellectual superiority, dominance and suppression, and may have more in common with the man he finds himself playing than he assumed. These are profoundly psychological performances, warring with each other philosophically, sexually and emotionally. Both actor and actress put in the sort of fearless work that is needed. It it the only way a film like this can succeed.
The design of the screenplay is marvelously complex. Venus in Fur is an adaptation of a play about a play that is an adaptation of a novel. Adaptation, and the singular peculiarity of an author taking the work of another into his own head space, just might be the dominant theme behind it all, as much of the interplay between Thomas and Vanda is rooted in how the author of an adaptation can subconsciously inject him or herself into preestablished works. The foibles, kinks and predilections of the adaptor visit themselves upon the foibles, kinks and predilections of the original author, just like the way actors bring themselves into a role written by another. Polanski preys on this idea through this stunning rumination on relationships, taboo, power of both a psychological and sexual nature, and the universal drive of pleasure, no matter from where it may come. Disappointingly, the spell of the film is broken in its final moments, as the tone shifts abruptly after a tense climax. It is clear what Polanski and his composer Alexandre Desplat are going for in this moment, but the score and the directorial choices push it beyond the realm of the garish, and it is tough not to have the momentum of the piece falter as a result.
It is unfortunate that this one weakness is found in the last minutes of the film, as it threatens to disproportionately color the overall experience. This is unfair to the roundly excellent 92 minutes that precede it. The stumble cannot be discounted, though, and it does hold back the quality of the enterprise just a tad. Even still, Venus in Fur is a fascinating, exciting and alluring twisty dual character study, funny and deathly serious, sensual and powerful and dangerous. It dances along the razor’s edge and only slips once, a forgivable trespass considering its otherwise stellar quality. Polanski is back at the top of his game with this one.