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Venus in Fur
La Vénus à la fourrure
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Venus in Fur is the third and best of the films Roman Polanski has adapted from confined, single-set, stage plays. As in his two previous movies Death and the Maiden (1994) and Carnage (2011), Polanski collaborates closely with the original playwright and does little to open the play up for the big screen. The master director has such skill with a camera that he doesn’t need to upsize and augment a bottled up two-character play to make it cinematic. But what playwright David Ives’ Venus in Fur offers the celebrated but controversial director that the previous theatrical pictures didn’t is an opportunity to fully explore the type of dark, sexually twisted, material he is clearly drawn to.

Ives’ taught two–hander concerns a surreal audition undertaken by an unknown actress for a playwright-turned-director’s adaptation of the novel Venus in Furs by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (from whom we get the term “masochism”). The play and the play-within-the-play deal with male/female power dynamics, identity politics, gender roles, and the blurred lines between artist and art. These are all issues audiences already can’t help but associate with Polanski--both the great filmmaker and the exiled sex offender--and the director seems to encourage the association by the casting of his two actors. Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric starred together in Julian Schnabel’s uncommonly moving The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), but we hardly think about their characters in Schnabel’s acclaimed film while watching them in these roles. As we observe the psychodrama between the mysterious, aggressive, sexually alluring actress and the passionate but frustrated director it is impossible not to be conscious of the fact that Seigner is Polanski’s wife of 30+ years and Amalric is his virtual doppelganger (the 48 year-old actor looks almost identical to the Polanski of 30 years ago). Rather than distract us, this obscuring of author and subject only enhances the power of the material.   

I can only assume that Polanski is aware of these overtones. Sometimes great artists are blind to how their choices are viewed by audiences--and indeed Amalric was a last minute replacement for Polanski’s original choice for the role, the much younger Louis Garrel (Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers) who looks nothing like Polanski. But the great filmmaker further puts his stamp on the piece by employing his singular gift for using enclosed spaces to create a claustrophobic sense of impending doom. He distances residual memories of the play by setting his picture in Pairs and translating Ives’ acclaimed dialogue into French (Ives’ personally supervised the subtitle translation for the English-language release). Perhaps the biggest difference between the play and the film is the age of the mysterious actress. Seigner (Frantic, Bitter Moon, La Vie en Rose,) is now 48 years old--about 25 years senior to Nina Arianda, who originated the role in New York and won a Tony for her performance. Seigner has come a long way from her early years as a former fashion model who was dismissed by many critics when she married Polanski and began to star in his films. In Venus in Fur she commands the stage and the camera with a mature elegance and experienced sexuality that recalls the great Catherine Deneuve in middle age. 

There are few missteps in this picture, but, as with all three of Polanski’s theatrical chamber pieces, the ending feels abrupt and unsatisfying. The disappointing conclusion makes the overall picture less of the gratifying, kinky mind-fuck that it should be. Still, the performances, the staging, the Alexandre Desplat score, and the inventive use of sound effects make Venus in Fur well worth seeing.

Directed by Roman Polanski
Produced by Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde

Screenplay by Roman Polanski and David Ives
Based on the play by David Ives

With: Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric

Cinematography: Pawel Edelman
Editing: Hervé de Luze and Margot Meynier
Music: Alexandre Desplat

Runtime: 96 min
Release Date: 08 November 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color