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CANNES – Roman Polanski’s penchant for psychosexual mind games conducted in claustrophobic spaces is deliciously revisited in Venus in Fur (La Venus a la Fourrure), adapted in French and yet mostly faithful to American playwright David Ives’ Broadway hit of the same name. A teasing dialectic of subjugation and power, female objectification and emasculating rebuke, the film should titillate European audiences with its mischievous combination of think and kink, while seducing a more limited niche in the U.S.
The play premiered Off Broadway in 2010 and transferred uptown the following season, making an overnight New York stage star and eventual Tony Award winner out of Nina Arianda, the female half of Ives’ table-turning cat-and-mousecapade. The previously unknown actress’ sizzling command of the role was such that it was hard to imagine anyone else coming close. But Emmanuelle Seigner is a fresh revelation, putting her own cunning, carnal spin on the mystery woman as avenging goddess.
Given that the volatile negotiation of gender roles in this two-hander is between an actress and her director, it adds amusing subtextual layers to have Mathieu Amalric, who bears a striking resemblance to the younger Polanski, playing opposite the director’s wife. It’s as if Polanski were winking at the audience about the inherent sado-masochism in every actor-director pact, insouciantly offering up his derriere to be spanked.
As in Polanski’s last adaptation of a play, Carnage, the film gets underway with only the briefest pretense of expanding beyond its confined setting. In a glowering sequence largely drained of color, Pawel Edelman’s camera cruises the tree-lined center lane of a Paris boulevard at high speed on a stormy night, as composer Alexandre Desplat’s thunderous opening theme signals ominous things to come.
The point of view, we learn while watching, is that of Vanda (Seigner), the actress arriving at a theater late and unscheduled to audition, after the readers and other production staff have gone home. Only the playwright-director Thomas Novachek (Amalric) remains, his inflamed phone rant about the day’s dismal candidates for leading lady tagging him as your everyday misogynist.
On the incongruous set of a cheesy Belgian musical version of Stagecoach, replete with the unsubtle phallic monument of a giant cactus, Thomas has been attempting to cast his play. That work gives the film its title and is adapted from the 1870 Austrian novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Danube bondage buff whose name went on to carve its place in the lexicon.
Loaded up like a bag lady, bedraggled from the rain and dressed in tacky fetish garb with a dog collar, Vanda is crude, gum-chewing Euro-trash, a million miles from the type Thomas is seeking. While he tries to brush her off quickly, he’s thrown by the fact that her unusual name is the same as the role for which she’s auditioning, Vanda von Dunajev, and that she somehow has gotten hold of a complete script rather than just sides. The actress won’t be dismissed, bamboozling the reluctant director into reading opposite her.
Her instant transformation into a cultivated 19th century sophisticate, and her word-perfect grasp of the text despite claiming only to have glanced at it, instantly get Thomas’ attention. Vanda even plucks period costumes for both of them out of her voluminous bag.
In the guise of her fictional role, she coaxes revealing personal history out of the play’s leading male character, Severin Kushemski. That bookish aristocrat has never been quite the same since being pinned down on his aunt’s fur cape as a lad and whipped with a birch branch in front of the female servants for his bratty insolence.
Pretty soon, Vanda is negotiating a slave-maitresse arrangement with drooling puppy Severin, the conditions of which get progressively more stringent. Subtly at first, and then with ever-trickier manipulation, that contract extends to the actress and her director, whose initial intoxication spirals until he’s hopelessly out of his depth.
While Thomas calls his play “a beautiful love story,” Vanda bluntly pegs it as S&M porn with a dash of child abuse. Via the irritated reaction of Amalric’s character to that reductive assessment, Polanski appears to be having a dig at those who insist on reading social issues into work intended to be taken at face value.
The play suffered from mid-section slackness and its back-and-forth dynamic grows mildly repetitive in both stage and screen versions. But the adaptation – co-authored by Ives and Polanski from a translation by Abel Gerschenfeld – is arguably tauter, even if the film shows its hand too early with clues that Vanda is a far more enigmatic figure than she appears. But there’s a masterfully light touch at work, both from the director and his two wonderful actors. They make this chamber piece lip-smacking entertainment, giving the dense text the semblance of more intellectual heft or sexual transgressiveness than it ultimately contains.
Desplat’s suggestive, often humorous score is a tremendous asset, taking a Greek turn to match the escalating mythological dimensions of the final scene, in which Aphrodite makes her formidable presence felt.
Credit also must go to production designer Jean Rabasse and cinematographer Edelman for their endless resourcefulness in creating a multi-dimensional environment out of such an enclosed space. The play unfolded entirely in a modest rehearsal studio. But giving the two characters the run of a theater – including stage, wings and auditorium, not to mention allowing Vanda control of the lighting board – wittily underscores the different notions of reality that can be conjured in theater, film and in the strange intersection of life and fantasy where the fateful meeting between Vanda and Thomas takes place.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Production companies: RP Productions, Monolith Films, in association with Manon 3, Mars Films
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriter: David Ives, Roman Polanski, based on the play by Ives; French translation by Abel Gerschenfeld
Producers: Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Jean Rabasse
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editors: Margot Meynier, Herve de Luze
Costume designer: Dinah Colin
No rating, 96 minutes.
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