Mark Reviews Movies

Venus in Fur


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 6/20/14 (limited); 8/15/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 15, 2014

No one ever accused playwright David Ives of being too subtle. Best known for his jokily premised one-act plays, Ives is a hit-the-nail-squarely-on-the-head type of writer. That style has its benefits—given the heady nature of his work, we're kept on track—and its shortcomings—we're kept on track to the point where any intellectual ambiguity either doesn't exist or feels forced.

Venus in Fur, with a screenplay adapted by Ives (from his play) and director Roman Polanski, is pretty much what we've come to expect from the playwright's work in that it spends a great deal of time referencing and commenting upon itself. The two characters within the film, an actress and a dramatist/aspiring director, live and breathe the theatrical arts. They spend every moment we see them on or near a stage, reading lines from a play that possesses the same title as the film and that has, in turn, been adapted from a novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch with pretty much the same name as both. Each suspects he or she knows the rationale of the book's author, and both are pretty sure they know the motivation of the play's writer. One of them should, of course, because he is the playwright. The other might know better because she is not.

The fight between a writer's intentions and a reader/performer's interpretation would seem like a sweeping topic of debate, but that's just one level on which the film is working. It's not the most obvious one, either.

Some background, which the film provides, is vital at this point. The von Sacher-Masoch story concerns a man who becomes enamored of a woman and offers himself as her slave. It does not turn out well for him.

Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has provided an epigraph to his play based on that novella. It comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith and essentially tells of God punishing a certain man by delivering him "into the hand of a woman." Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), an actress who arrives for an audition after all of the other actresses have left, reads the epigraph as a denunciation of all women as a punishment to all men.

"It's sexist," she says. Thomas disagrees, but the only evidence he has to offer is that the statement was also the preface to von Sacher-Masoch's book. Since he has decided that the source material is not sexist, his play and the inclusion epigraph must not be, as well. Besides, the book was written in the late 19th century, and the play is set in the same time period. Surely it is simply a reflection of that time. What he fails to realize or refuses to acknowledge is that he—a modern man aware of current social mores—has chosen this work.

There's still the matter of intention and interpretation vying with each other, but now we come to the crux of it: gender politics, particularly regarding sex and, even more so, power. When Vanda first arrives (Our first hint of the film's sympathies comes from the opening scene: a dolly shot that turns out to be a subjective one), Thomas dismisses her as yet another in the long line of actresses he has seen all day.

He complains on the phone to his fiancée that they are all vapid and speak like teenagers, and here comes this woman dressed, as he describes the others, "like a hooker." She claims to know about the play but pries information from him and—blasphemy for any actor in such a situation—is chewing gum.

There are mysteries to her, too. She somehow has the complete script, which is a shock to Thomas, and has come with a bag filled with a seemingly unending supply of costume pieces and props. Vanda is also the name of the part for which she is auditioning. It's enough to give Thomas a reason to let her read for the role, although we can't help but notice a certain lustful look in his eyes while he studies her. It increases in frequency and intensity as he reads opposite her as the man who will eventually become a slave to "Vanda."

Of course, we suspect where this is heading, but the screenplay finely balances communicating the overarching narrative while allowing the characters to discuss not only their individual analyses of the play but also how the other's understanding of it reflects his or her personality. The characters are themselves, but for a sizeable portion of the film, they are also the characters in the play (It's unfortunate that the subtitles differentiate the conversation between the actress and playwright from the dialogue in the play by italicizing the dialogue, especially later in the film when the line between the two modes of speaking is blurred).

The shifting power dynamics—between the characters and the roles they are playing—are enthralling. It begins subtly, with the actress directing the director and mocking him whenever he takes a phone call, and becomes quite bold when Vanda decides to switch roles at the play's turning point. Polanski parallels the changes, keeping his camera at a safe distance only to jolt us with invasive close-ups.

It works as well as it does primarily due to the performances from Seigner, whose transition from one stereotype to another is one of nearly imperceptible gradation, and Amalric, who always lets us know that Thomas' sense of power is just a lie he tells himself. Venus in Fur is obvious in its goals (the way the epigraph—in big, bold letters—transforms from an insult into a statement of defiance against its original interpretation), but the performances help us to feel like we're discovering what we already know as we go.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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