Film Review – Venus in Fur
Venus in Fur
Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (2013) tells the story of an actress auditioning for a part in a stage production of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel “Venus in Furs”. A quick internet search tells me the book centers around a character – Severin – who’s so smitten with a woman – Vanda – that he offers to become her sexual slave. He asks her to mistreat him in increasingly extreme ways. Further research reveals this “arrangement” mirrors one Sacher-Masoch had with a woman in the 1800s. His name is linked with the emergence of the term “masochism,” or in the context of this film, “sadomasochism.” I’ve given this little history lesson as means to let you know, dear reader, what you’re in store for if you decide to plunge into this very strange film.
The writer/director of the stage adaptation is Thomas (Mathieu Amalric). After a long day of auditioning terrible actresses for the main female role, Thomas gets ready to call it a day. But just as he’s prepared to walk out the door, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) comes bursting in. Vanda is a character who appears to be all over the place. She’s extremely late for her audition (everyone else has left), is soaking wet from the rain, and is disheveled and unorganized. But at the same time, she is determined and a bit forceful in her desire to read for the part, convincing Thomas to stay and read with her.
With a screenplay by Polanski and David Ives (based on his play), the plot centers on these two characters alone, as they interact with reading and discussing Thomas’ script. The premise isn’t a lot to fill in a feature-length runtime, but Polanski does a good job of keeping this two person show engaging and constantly moving. His camera revolves around them, hardly ever remaining static. There’s a light-hearted tone established with a bouncy soundtrack, but it’s used to hide something more sinister underneath. We even get the ominous lightning strike every few minutes. Polanski could have started the film with the phrase “On a dark and stormy night” and it would have fit right in.
But as the “audition” progresses, things start turning towards the weird. Vanda is not as dim as Thomas first thought. She has insights into the play that challenges his original ideas, and she knows a lot more about the production (especially about Thomas himself) than she lets on. She starts throwing in suggestions, and soon enough begins to dictate their reading. Thomas – with a fiancé at home eagerly waiting for him – surprisingly goes along with this act, taking Vanda’s thoughts on the play almost too easily.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the dynamic between Vanda and Thomas is the same as the one between Vanda and Severin within the book. The fact that both female characters have the exact same name would hint where the audition will ultimately end up. There are themes presented, mostly regarding feminism, sexuality, and gender roles, but I wonder what the film is actually saying about those themes? Perhaps the novel (which I haven’t read) touches upon this more thoroughly. But on the screen, it remained a bit hazy. Yes, there is a large cactus on stage that is obviously a phallic symbol, but is that all there is? Did Vanda come into Thomas’ life only to expose his huge ego and darker tendencies, or is something else going on here?
Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric are both capable, watchable performers. Seigner has the flashier role, eating scenery as her Vanda jumps right in before Thomas has a chance to react. She pushes it just to the brink of caricature, and in some instances simply crosses that line. Amalric plays Thomas as the classical artist, pained by the trouble of bringing his vision to life. He is both threatened and intrigued by Vanda. The way the two skip between performing the script and debating its merits are so fluid there were moments I wasn’t sure they were acting as the character or acting as themselves.
The last act of the film is the make or break point, especially for one tackling this type of material. Sadly, it doesn’t quite hit the right note to end on. Throughout the entire ordeal between these two people, we get the feeling this is all building towards something. When we finally do get there, what happens is sure unexpected, but not very satisfying. It dives into absurdity – as anticipated – but leaves a level of ambiguity that doesn’t close the film effectively. Instead, it just stops in mid-sentence. I’m all for a story leaving questions unanswered, but it also has to have the opportunity to flesh out everything it has to say. I never got that here.
I’m sure people will see Venus in Fur and applaud it, especially in its examination of a subject still considered taboo in today’s society. For this reviewer, however, the payoff didn’t match everything that came before it. In a peculiar way, the film didn’t go far enough.