The provocation begins with the premise of VENUS IN FUR, Roman Polanski's adapatation of David Ives' play-within-a-play version of an 1870 novella by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
The novella, revolving around the themes of female dominance and "suprasensuality," inspired the modern term "masochism."
Polanski converts Ives' script from English to French and relocates the New York City setting to an empty Parisian theater. There, playwright-turned-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has finished a disappointing day of auditioning incompetent actresses for his new play, itself an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's book.
Enter the bedraggled, gum-smacking Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a seemingly uncultured aspirant who embodies the vapidity Thomas detests in modern-day actresses.
Vanda pleads and cries her way into an impromptu reading for the female role in Thomas' play, a role also "coincidentally" named Vanda. As Thomas stands in for the play's submissive male aesthete, Severin, Vanda's coarse exterior dissolves as she begins flawlessly reciting her lines, transforming herself into a self-assured temptress. Thomas is instantly intrigued, and the duo's sexually and emotionally charged tête-à-tête fuels the rest of the play/film.
The dialogue seamlessly slips in and out of Thomas' play. Thomas and Vanda argue about sexual objectification, Thomas' unseen fiancée and even proper stage lighting. At a moment's notice, however, they're immersed back in the roles of Severin and Vanda: one dominating, the other dominated, in a pas de deux of gender dynamics.
Aided by Pawel Edelman's fluid camerawork, Amalric and especially Seigner's performances are filled with titillating tenacity, although the will-they-or-won't-they device grows tedious by the closing acts. Polanski poses tantalizing notions but little subsurface analysis, eventually nose-diving into a Grand Guignol finale that finds one character lassoed to a giant phallus-shaped cactus left over from a production of Stagecoach.
Within the broader social commentary of Venus in Fur, there's a more immediate appraisal of the relationship between artist and muse, and exactly who ends up influencing whom. Vanda is a strong feminist archetype, but at the same time one rendered by paternal creators (three of them at this point) that feeds into parochial stereotypes.
Moreover, there's no escaping the examination of how the film's themes relate to Polanski's infamous 1977 guilty plea to the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old and his subsequent flight from justice.
Venus fans these flames, as Amalric is a dead ringer for a younger Polanski and the 48-year-old Seigner is the director's real-life wife. (Perhaps he avoided casting someone of similar age to Nina Arianda, the young actress who won a Tony in Ives' production, to blunt the older man/younger woman parallel.)
The film seems to argue that sexual desire in all its forms is normal, and that men are helpless slaves to it—a very convenient position for Roman Polanski to take. At one point, Thomas even recoils at Vanda's suggestion that his play might be rooted in child abuse. Where one might like a mea culpa, this seems like a problematic alibi.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dirty laundry."