There are few current film directors who can boast as cinematic a résumé as Roman Polanski. The timeless likes of Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist sit proudly upon it but, throughout his controversial career, the exiled filmmaker has occasionally been attracted to the sheer theatricalism of the humble stage. 1994’s Death and the Maiden would be followed, eventually, by the quite brilliant Carnage in 2010, both being filmic adaptations of original plays.
It is to this source then that Polanski returns once more with Venus in Fur, his newest exploration of theatre’s unique power. Taking place entirely within the confines of some faceless, crumbling auditorium, his film about a play — based, in turn, on David Ives’s play about a play — might, for all its arch storytelling, shudder under the weight of its own intensity but it is, nevertheless, a wickedly clever exploration of sexual domination.
A two-hander, and Polanski’s first completely French language production, Venus in Fur features Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, the frustrated director-adapter of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s S&M opus, Venus in Furs. Uninspired by the actresses seeking the lead female role, Thomas is about to depart his somewhat ramshackle Parisian playhouse when, like a warped Mary Poppins, the disorganised, gum-chewing, curse-throwing Vanda (Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) tumbles through the door, late, rain-soaked and desperate to read for him.
While ignorant of the material’s significance and possessing only a rudimentary knowledge of Thomas’s highbrow stylings, Vanda is a charming aspirant. With the aid of her enthusiasm and a treasure trove of strangely appropriate costumes, she convinces the onscreen director not just to hear her out but to participate in her instantly fantastic audition. From that point on, the boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred, if not rubbed out altogether as Vanda, her true motivations unclear, uses the very words that Thomas has written to drive him down a forbidden path. To wit, the sense that he is deeply connected to Sacher-Masoch’s outlook is never far away.
The piquancy between the two actors might otherwise dissolve if French were not the means by which they were communicating. In their sultry mother tongue, however, Amalric and Seigner luxuriate in the skewed eroticism of the interplay. The former, a wonderfully chameleonic actor, tones down his better-known, preening Bond-villain sensibilities in favour of something infinitely more repressed and his resemblance to a young Polanski will not go unnoticed. Indeed, the charged reference to modern society’s focus on child sex abuse represents more than a simple throwaway line when spoken by a man bearing such physical similarities.
Next to him, Seigner is an undeniably vibrant presence. Curvaceous and oozing sensuality, she is a long way from her ethereal, waif-like breakout role in Frantic, her husband’s coolly paranoid 1988 Euro-thriller. Here the actress is reassuringly confident and, in keeping with the encroaching influence of the play’s obvious themes, increasingly tyrannical.
From the beginning, Seigner strides around the set, creating more conducive lighting, groping the faintly obscene cut-outs of the naff Belgian Western with which the production is sharing a space and manipulating the malleable Thomas with stunning ease. She flits from the script to her own thoughts, conveying a nuanced distinction in character traits between these two versions of herself, one grounded, the other a scheming dominatrix. It is masterful stuff.
At his roots, of course, Polanski is a cinephile and he has added subtle flourishes here and there to heighten the immersive experience, from little sound effects accompanying the miming of actions by Thomas and Vanda to the clever italicising of subtitles when the dialogue shifts from spontaneous conversation to scripted verse. Tellingly, the latter comes to hold sway as the drama rolls on, Thomas’s thoughts and those of his inner submissive conflating on a profound level.
Vanda, too, appears caught up in the facade. That said, her behaviour is more knowing, more cynical; she even manages, in one subversive exchange, to deconstruct the playwright’s safely unexciting existence, a lingerie-clad devil on the shoulder. Whatever this unpredictable starlet’s intentions, humiliation of her partner seems a priority and she seizes her chance with aplomb before the end, retaining the power while reversing the rehearsed roles with visceral consequences.
That there is an element of farce to it all is unsurprising given the ludicrous premise yet, darker still, the inevitability of a Greek tragedy hangs over the bizarre finale. Vanda, enraged and cavorting in the nude, invokes Dionysus, the God of ecstasy and the great punisher of apostates in The Bacchae, an inspiration to the now stricken, subjugated Thomas in the crafting of his perverse work.
Such is the tone. Dense and often stifling, Polanski’s latest foray onto the trodden board is a witty and ambitious entry from which it is almost impossible to escape. Taken at face value, and with an aspirin, one cannot fail to be amused.
An edited version of this article was first published here.