Venus in Fur opens with a slow, meandering tracking shot through a Parisian road, a cloudy evening sky giving the scene a sinister cast. This is one of those broad Napoleonic boulevards that opens to the beauty of the French architecture, a scenic spot likely overrun with tourists during the daytime hours, now completely devoid of life—no one is to be seen until our camera enters the theater where it will spend the next 95 minutes. Whatever natural beauty may exist in the street is eradicated; left behind is a soulless, lifeless husk of a city—a structure that no longer has meaning or purpose without the people who fill it. And sadly, the rest of the film follows in this suit. It is a beautiful and well crafted structure that has lost its meaning somewhere along the way.
Director: Roman Polanski
Producers: Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde
Writers: Roman Polanski, David Ives, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (novel)
Cinematographer: Pawel Edelman
Editors: Hervé de Luze, Margot Meynier
Cast: Emmanuelle Signer, Mathieu Amalric
Premiere: May 25, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 20, 2014
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
The film centers on a play—an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. This novel made Sacher-Masoch nefarious due to its depravity and spawned in its wake a word that has long outlasted its author’s reputation: masochism. But in this retelling, a contemporary playwright is using this work as a source for his own rendition, slightly skewed, likely as personally revealing as the original material. The story within the play takes place at a rural estate, where a lonely writer (a surrogate for our lonely playwright) becomes so infatuated with a woman that he signs a contract to become her slave, serving in a footman’s uniform and doing whatever demeaning thing she demands.
We enter this story by tracking into the theater where our director/playwright, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), is about to close up shop on a disappointing day of auditions. Suddenly a latecomer, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife since 1989) talks her way into a last-minute audition. Vanda is stunning in the role, a natural Vanda (a character with whom she shares a name) and a brilliant theatre creator—even going so far as to reset the lighting and pitch rewrites to the script. As the audition heats up and Thomas steps in to read opposite Vanda, the events of the novel, and more importantly the power relations between the characters, become manifest here in the adaptation as well.
But our Venus in Fur, co-written by Polanski and David Ives, is even one step further removed than it seems, as this is an adaptation of Ives’ play “Venus in Fur” which is itself a play about a theatrical adaptation of Venus in Furs. This provenance, while convoluted, adds to the film’s illusory status: it is purely and simply a Baudrillardian simulacrum, a copy of a copy that has lost any semblance of the original. If this story once had the power to tell essential truths about human sexuality (and perhaps it did in 1870 when the novel was published) those truths have been so thoroughly incorporated and accepted that they are common sense. And Ives and Polanski’s fictional adaptation does little to update the material—there are no new ideas here.
The performances of the two leads nearly make up for this essential failing. Seigner and Amalric have worked together before in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where the two seethe and glow as ex-spouses brought together by Amalric’s debilitating disease. Their chemistry here is just as breathtaking, and if you love film to see the craft of good acting on display, then this film is nearly perfect. Their performances are stunning, but the structure to which they put their considerable talents to use is simply vapid.
The rest of the film is expertly crafted as well. We should expect no less from that master of style, Roman Polanski. The direction is powerful and precise, the lighting is beautifully delicate, and the script is sharply and elegantly written. It’s just all in the service of a heavy-handed morality tale—haven’t we seen enough of these? Polanski’s recent turn toward ham-fisted theatrical work is disappointing—like 2011’s Carnage, this is adapted from a play and adopts the conventions of that medium at a detriment to the film. Here’s hoping Polanski has gotten this phase out of his system and can go back to directing films again instead of beautifully shot theatrical plays.