Synopsis: Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is distraught that no one has what it takes to play the lead female character: a woman who enters into an agreement with her male counterpart to dominate him as her slave.
Enter pushy, foul-mouthed, desperate and ill-prepared actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, La Vie en Rose) who is a whirlwind of erratic – and, it turns out, erotic – energy.
Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play by David Ives, Venus In Fur is the latest work from master filmmaker Roman Polanski and a showcase for powerhouse performances from its two acclaimed leads.
eyelights: the actors’ commanding performances. the super-charged dynamic between the characters.
eyesores: its confounding last few moments.
“She taught me the most valuable thing in the world.”
Influential though it may be, I have never read ‘Venus im Pelz’, the 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch; its theme of sadomasochism is of no interest to me whatsoever. It’s a wonder, then, that Roman Polanski’s 2013 film, which is based on the Sacher-Masoch-inspired David Ives play, could be a draw.
But I’d heard that it was a two-person play and seemed to recall that it was the intensity of the dynamic between the characters that sustained it. I knew very little else about it, but was rather intrigued, especially in light of the fact that Polanski had already made a such a film with his spouse Emmanuelle Seigner.
What more was there to explore?
In ‘La Vénus à la fourrure’, Polanski explores not just sadomasochism, but female domination, setting his story in a small French theatre where a writer is holding auditions for his latest play, also based on ‘Venus im Pelz’. As he’s wrapping up, despairing because all of the actresses were dreadful, in comes Vanda.
Vanda is an unsophisticated woman with an undistinguished vocabulary. At first glance, she seems completely out of her league, a wannabe with little experience or talent. But, as Thomas is about to discover, there is much more to her than one might guess at first glance; when she begins, she is utterly captivating.
She owns the part. And soon, she also owns him.
The whole play is about a couple discussing their power dynamics, as is the film. What’s interesting is how it blurs the lines between the characters and their parts, as Vanda coincidentally plays Vanda in Thomas’ play and sucks him into playing the lead for her audition. Soon, she begins to direct the staging of the play.
She begins to change the lighting, moves the set around, and even guides Thomas in his readings. Eventually, their parts become a transparent veil for Vonda’s domination of Thomas, using their characters’ words as their own, sometimes confusing the play and reality. He eventually gets lost in the part that he knows too well.
But we often can’t tell the difference between the characters acting or just being themselves, knowing that there are actually two layers going on at once. There’s a constant shift between the roles, which is really well-coordinated and conceived; at no point did it feel awkward or unconvincing. It felt utterly believable.
It helps that the cast (who have worked together before in ‘Le scaphandre et le papillon‘) is spellbinding:
- Emmanuelle Seigner is unreal in the part, discrediting Vanda at the onset with her casual demeanour, making a near-joke of her, and then shifting gears completely to take control of Vanda’s part. And, midway through Vanda’s audition, shifting gears again to become the character again, discussing the play with Thomas.
Although she’d been so horrific in ‘Bitter Moon’, she has come a long way since. Here you could never guess just how poor she’d been in the early parts of her career. As Vanda, she is intense, commanding, perfectly-suited to the role. It’s as though it had been written just for her. Or, at the very least, shaped for her.
- Mathieu Amalric is equally excellent. At first his Thomas is dismissive and cranky, but he’s not entirely cruel: He sympathizes with Vanda, who arrived late, seems incompetent, but is insistent on doing a reading. After brushing her off a few times, he relents when, due to a misunderstanding, she assumes that he’s giving her a chance.
Then he sees how good she is and he becomes focused, fascinated, even entranced by her. And as she goads him to read the lines with her, he loses himself in the part, becoming Severin – who is just a veiled doppelgänger for himself. Amalric is also able to shift between the two roles with ease and blurs the lines between them.
What’s great about this two-person play, is that both of their two performances are stellar: They are great as Vonda and Thomas, but also as Vonda and Thomas playing Vonda and Severin. They are entirely credible. And so, when they start to blur the lines between Vonda and Vonda and Thomas and Severin, we believe it.
Even more fascinating is that we get the impression that Mathieu is just a stand-in for Polanski himself; it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine such a complex dynamic existing between the notorious director and his muse. In fact, it’s hard to believe that it’s not so. Thus ‘La Vénus à la fourrure’ is enveloped in various layers.
Where the film stumbles is towards the end, when Vonda, who has progressively been taking over, leads Thomas to switch roles with her. While it kind of makes sense, contextually-speaking, neither actors were as convincing in their performances, as though they themselves didn’t buy it. And so those last moments flopped dramatically.
But the rest of the film outshines this minor blemish. Guided by the sure hand of Polanski, Seigner and Amalric have turned in tour-de-force dual performances, the type that make careers, the type one doesn’t always expect from veterans – who sometimes phone it in as their careers transcend the decades.
Not so here.
‘La Vénus à la fourrure’ is a playful and captivating film that explores the more complex aspects of human relationships, of passion, of desire, of power dynamics, and delights in tightening the bonds between its players and the audience in such a way that one can’t escape. And, quite frankly, one doesn’t wish to.
Date of viewing: June 25, 2016