A raining night in Paris, a stage, two actors, four roles and an expertly crafted script Venus in Fur is satisfying and stylish film that will leave you bewildered as the lines of reality and art, power and position are constantly questioned.
Venus in Fur is the latest film from seasoned director Roman Polanski starring his wife Emmanuelle Seigner playing the actress Vanda who is auditioning for the role with the same name and Mathieu Amalric as the Thomas the arrogant director who reads the role of Severin, a man seeking to be dominated by the Vanda, the woman he loves. This deliciously crafted film is already enjoying a positive reception following it’s premiere in competition for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and five nominations at the 39th César Awards winning for Best Director – it’s a refreshing reminder of the presence and creativity of art house and foreign films that try to push the envelope of what a film can be.
Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play by David Ives (who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski) which is then based on the 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus In Furs (and yes – the term masochism was coined from his name) that even has a manuscript within it – Polanski has masterfully taken the story-within-a-story concept, that has so many layers of reality to disturb, and has delivered it in a way you could easily be seated in the Parisian theater where the film takes place, adding another element to it’s richness.
The film opens with a long sweeping shot of the wet sleek streets of Paris and in the doors of a small theater where we overhear Thomas complaining on the phone about the obscene selection of actresses who has come into audition for the role of Vanda. Suddenly another version of a Vanda bursts through the door, disheveled and brash, gum chewing and destroyed from the rain, showcases the exact opposite of the role she wants to win. Thomas desperately wants her to leave so he can go home, but within minutes he has found himself on stage reading with her, not quite understanding how.
Frustrated and impatient – he thinks this disaster of an actress is wasting his time, but as soon as she wipes away the running mascara and speaks the lines as if they are her own, she is transformed into a Goddess. We are left (with Thomas) completely breathless – surprised on how much we underestimated her.
As they read the script, we witness their positions switch. In the play,Vanda has the power. In reality, Thomas does. Arrogance takes over and when they break he sends messages reminding her that he’s the director by telling her where to stand, constantly correcting her, sighing that she doesn’t understand. Then little by little she challenges him back- controlling the lighting, telling him to change his clothes, and slowly revealing she perhaps knows the script better than he does. Soon we don’t know which Vanda she really is, and if a creature like herself can exist.As the film dances between the reality of the audition to the intricacies of the play – sometimes you get caught wondering what is real and what’s pretend. Polanski has added charming details to help us get caught up in the imaginary, like the added sound effects to Thomas ‘acting’ as Severin when he mimes pouring the coffee, the sound of liquid pouring accompanies it and the same for the clackety-clack of the cup and saucer being walked over to Vanda. The way they carefully touch a ratty scarf as it’s luxurious fur, you start seeing decadence and less of a bare stage and start believing it.
The moments when the scene has broken and they go back to being director and actress are a relief from the sexual and perverse tensions of the play. However charming and witty these moments are – they arrive less seldom as the movie progresses and we can no longer define what’s really happening, who’s has the dominance of who. It all builds up to a beautiful and scary dream. The questioning how this film was going to end and what does Vanda want with Thomas is constant. It’s never really answered either. In a film with constant shifts is power, as I left the cinema I was left wondering if it was me who was really being played?
Polanski is elegant and subtle as director – he knows when to charm, when to make you laugh, when to create tension, when to let it go and when to leave you startled and confused with his tightly wound script that is anything but boring. I did find the questioning of what’s going on a little distracting, and I found my self getting impatient with Vanda’s motives and feeling pity for Thomas at the same time. I craved for them to stop the audition and for us all to relax, for me to also escape this raining night in Paris and curl up at home. I attribute this to the almost seamless acting by Seigner and Amalric as they transition back and forth from their characters, changing without a beat.
If you are after a film which is clever and verbally magical, lush in it’s presentation and crisp in all dimensions of it’s performance, Venus in Fur delivers. I recommend to find a dark art house cinema on a rainy afternoon to see it.
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