Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

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UK Release Date 30th May 2014
Director Roman Polanski
Starring Emmanuelle Seigner
Runtime 96 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 11th June 2014

One of the constant joys of writing this site is the many and varied ways in which I can confess complete ignorance of any art form other than cinema. Adapted from a book? Haven’t read it. Adapted from a comic? Haven’t read it. Adapted from an epic LP? Haven’t listened to it. Adapted from a stage play? My word no, no I have not seen it.

And so we arrive (by means of the increasing joy that is Curzon Home - seriously, check out the revamp, it’s now probably one of the best put together VOD services I use. And they’re not even paying me to say that.) at Roman Polanski’s latest stage adaptation (following 2011’s Carnage). La Vénus à la fourrure is taken from David Ives’ stage play Venus in Fur which itself tells the tale of a writer / director attempting to stage a play of Venus in Furs, a book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Leopold it would appear was a somewhat unusual chap….

If all of this already got too convoluted for you, you may want to bail now because it’s about to get worse (or better, depending on your view). The writer / director in the movie is played by Mathieu Amalric, an uncanny likeness for Polanski himself (albeit a few years back) and the actress in the movie is played by Emmanuelle Seigner, otherwise known as Mrs. Polanski. So Polanski is making a film about a play being made by a proxy for himself of a book by….. okay, I’ll leave it there because my head is spinning. Suffice to say the plot is pretty straightforward for all that. Thomas (Amalric) is a frustrated theatre director at the end of a very difficult day auditioning for the female role of Vanda in his new play. As he bemoans the lack of suitable actresses to his fiancee over the phone, Vanda (Seigner) crashes into the theatre, soaking wet and apparently several hours late for her audition. That she shares the same first name as the character and that there is no sign of the time slot on Thomas’ schedule for her audition sets vague alarm bells ringing.

At first Vanda appears to be the exact opposite of what Thomas is looking for. Late, confused, common as all hell and with no apparent theatre knowledge, it’s fair to assume she is only allowed the room to begin the audition because of her outfit. But eventually allowed the room she is, ironically by a phone call from Thomas’ finance, and very gradually she starts to reveal more than a few interesting things about herself, not the least of which is her possession of a dog-eared copy of Thomas’ unreleased script….

Polanski as everyone knows is an odd piece and to be honest, I haven’t seen the majority of his work, but this one does seem to stand out as him having a lot more fun with the audience than his other work. The two actors are perfectly cast, in particular Seigner. A picture of intelligent, steaming sexuality, you never doubt for a second that she is entirely in control of the situation. Amalric’s frustrated, confidence bereft director is doomed from the moment he fails to continue on his way out of the theatre. Seigner manages to flick backwards and forwards between course, dumb blond and alluring, intelligent dominatrix with ease and absolute conviction. Vanda’s opening lines spoken to Thomas as he sits, back to her at his desk, stop him dead in his tracks. The bubble-gum chewing fool that stumbled in has disappeared and been replaced with something else completely. And he is royally screwed.

It’s probably a stretch to say that Polanski has adapted this play for the screen, what he’s done really is stick a camera in front of the players as they crack on with the play. That’s not necessarily a criticism (and indeed, it may just display my ignorance of the subtlety at work here) but this is definitely a movie that will only work for you if you’re willing to spend 98 minutes reading some pretty rapid subtitles (assuming you don’t speak French). I thoroughly enjoyed the experience though. Seigner’s mysterious character is a joy to behold, mentally smashing Thomas all over the theatre. Though the italicising of the subtitles betrays when each character is actually reading from the script, it’s not always obvious, certainly in Thomas’ case, how close to their thoughts the script’s words are. This leads to a deliciously fun dynamic between the two. Time after time Thomas disappears into his ‘fictional’ words, only to be brought crashing back into reality by Vanda either cheering or scolding his performance.

Venus in Fur is clearly not going to be a movie for everyone but if you delight in twisted, joyously complicated situations and sparking dialogue, there is a lot here to enjoy. More playful than most of Polanski’s output, it’s difficult not to think he’s spending a good deal of the time here playing with his actors. Whether Thomas’ treatment at the hands of Vanda is entirely warranted will vary from viewer to viewer but by the time the camera zooms away from his unfortunate encounter with a wonderfully phallic prop left over from a previous western play, you’ll be left in absolutely no doubt who the victor is in this encounter.

Check out the trailer here.

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