On a dark, stormy night (yes, really) the camera prowls a rain-lashed Paris street, then turns and enters the double doors of a crumbling jewel-box theater. This point-of-view shot for director Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur echoes the opening credits of his unholy-book-of-Satan thriller The Ninth Gate (1999), which featured a forward plunge through the portals of its title. That’s your first hint that something supernatural may be at work in his new film, too. Supernatural and sexual — a combination Polanski seems to enjoy. (Remember Rosemary’s Baby?)
Prior to Venus, Polanski has translated other contemporary plays to the screen: Death and the Maiden (1994) and Carnage (2011). Both of those movies, trying to tell heightened but “realistic” stories in “realistic” settings, came off as thuddingly fake. So maybe it makes sense that his version of playwright David Ives’ stage hit Venus, a completely artificial script, should seem, perversely, more believable. It’s an excuse for two actors to playact about playacting. You don’t have to suspend your disbelief, because the whole thing is set in a theater — that historic whore-goddess-mother of make-believe.
Back to the movie’s beginning: the person indicated by that prowling POV shot into the theater is Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner). She pauses in the lobby doorway to eavesdrop on stage director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) as he rants on the phone to his fiancée that he’s just spent the day auditioning “35 idiot actresses.”
Vanda is the 36th actress. If at first she also seems idiotic, the impression falls away quickly. She’s arriving at the theater hours late, only her name doesn’t appear on the list at the audition time she says she’d scheduled. She’s also rain-drenched, wearing a black bustier that barely contains her breasts, plus garter belts, stiletto heels and a dog collar around her neck. She’s in character — the character of the role she’s come to read for, coincidentally also named Vanda.
That’s the heroine/dominatrix of Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, the tale of a nobleman named Severin who willingly enslaves and degrades himself to the woman of this name. (Bonus point if you figured out that Sacher-Masoch’s work gave us the word “masochist.”) Amalric’s playwright-director Thomas is auditioning actresses for this role in his own stage adaptation of the proto-BDSM novel.
He doesn’t want to let Vanda (the actress) read for the part. It’s late, he’s tired and his fiancée wants him home for dinner. Vanda wheedles and blusters her way into giving her a chance; her opening minutes have the same showstopper verve of the entrance monologue by the character Yvan in Art — another hit play that, like Venus, holds your attention as long as you watch it, then evaporates completely from your mind.
Anyway, once Vanda convinces Thomas to let her read, he’s immediately captivated. Her barbed, city-frazzled energy recedes into the enigmatic, genteel poise of “Vanda.” Strangely enough, Vanda seems to have memorized the entire script, though she claims she just flipped through it while riding to the theater on the metro. She also has, in her bag, an era-appropriate dress to slip over her wet undergarments, and an 1869 smoking jacket for Thomas to wear when she persuades him to act out the role of Severin. Hmmm . . .
Much of Venus is a double-edged back-and-forth between two sets of characters: the actress and writer-director, and the two characters they play in an extended audition/performance of the script in this empty theater (occasionally strobed by flashes from the ongoing storm). Vanda frequently breaks out of being “Vanda,” sometimes to flatter Thomas’ choices as an adapter, but increasingly to ridicule the “corny” aspects of the story, and its idealistic/unrealistic views of both women and sexual subjection.
Thomas objects, insisting it’s the tale of two people “handcuffed at the heart.” “By perversion,” Vanda says. “By passion!” he counters.
Here’s the funny thing about Venus in Fur. Deconstructing a dated, misogynist work isn’t the same thing as solving the inherent problems of Sacher-Masoch’s novel; Venus wants to gently mock the original text while also drawing on its mild power to titillate. Well, no harm, no foul. No one could ever take this seriously. In addition to Venus in Fur’s empty promise of sexual transgression, the main allure of Ives’ material (onstage and now onscreen) is its value as a dynamic showcase for two actors.
Polanski’s wife in real life, Seigner is the revelation here. She came across stiff in previous collaborations with her husband, Frantic (1988) and Ninth Gate. She was a lot of fun in Bitter Moon (1992) though, drooling milk on her breasts and going over-the-top as a nympho in a sex-crazed movie that was absolutely hilarious . . . though everyone involved seemed to think they were making a dramatic thriller.
Seigner’s always striking appearance has ripened, deepened and grown more fluid with age. Hard to believe she’s pushing 50. Both actors are a decade or so older than the parts are normally cast onstage, but their experience — physically and professionally — lends Venus an extra bit of weight that the script really needs.
Vanda is the showy role. Thomas/Severin is actually the much harder one, and comparatively thankless. Luckily, Amalric — a gifted, impish mainstay of French cinema, and a Polanski lookalike — does as much as anyone could with the part. We see that his Thomas shares a few things with Sacher-Masoch, not only a fascination for women and sable stoles, but an ingrained misogyny disguised as an adoration of women.
For all its actors’ hard work, Venus can feel like an overextended skit. Playwright Ives, who adapted his 2010 script with Polanski, is best known for omnibus plays comprising a series of sketches, such as All in the Timing and Time Flies. In its final minutes, Venus in Fur doesn’t stick the landing because there’s no landing to stick. It just ends with an expected apotheosis. There is no true surprise twist, or an “ah ha” moment, because what is meant to be mere foreshadowing in the first quarter of the play gives the whole game away. Still, the movie is a lovely, slight, slightly kinky love letter to the theater. A love letter in thigh-high [blank]-me boots.
Venus in Fur. With Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric. Directed by Roman Polanski. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 96 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.