As with his earlier “Carnage” and “Death and the Maiden,” “Venus in Fur” finds Roman Polanski transferring a New York stage hit to the screen with maximum fidelity and facility, and a minimum of fuss. Primarily a vehicle for Mrs. Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner, who engulfs the screen with a juicy comic performance that does full justice to a demanding role, this playful and literate rumination on the fine line between passion and perversity, pleasure and pain, life and art should draw the attention of discerning highbrow auds, albeit likely falling short of the starrier, English-language “Carnage’s” $27 million worldwide haul.
Onscreen as onstage, “Venus” is something of an elaborate hall of mirrors issuing forth from Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 “Venus in Furs,” itself a mirrored novel-within-a-novel about a man, Severin, who submits himself as a love slave to the woman he adores, Vanda. Ergo, history’s first “masochistic” romance. In David Ives’ Tony-winning 2010 stage version, the book-within-a-book became a play-within-a-play — a single-set, 90-minute dialogue between an exasperated playwright/director and the actress auditioning for the lead in his new show (based on Sacher-Masoch’s work). Though one might have expected a “Venus in Fur” movie to continue the trend by adopting a film-within-a-film structure, Polanski (who collaborated with Ives on the screenplay) opts to retain the theatrical setting, in turn evoking such other hybrid theater/cinema works as Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street,” Manoel de Oliveira’s “The Satin Slipper” and multiple films by Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette.
In his second feature-length psychotherapy session of this year’s Cannes (after Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P.”), Mathieu Amalric stars as the writer, Thomas, who is coming to the end of a long and unproductive day of auditions when one last candidate (Seigner) blows in from the rain. Her name is Vanda, she claims, just like the character, though from her head-to-toe leather couture, studded dog collar and guttural accent (imagine a French-speaking Vinnie Barbarino), she neither looks nor sounds the part of an upper-crust 19th-century dominatrix. Oddly, Vanda’s name doesn’t even appear on the day’s call sheet, though she insists her agent told her to come. At first, Thomas doth protest, insisting he’s late for dinner with his fiancee, but the tenacious Vanda persists, and finally he agrees to let her read.
From there, Polanski and Ives orchestrate a delightfully intricate battle of wits and wills in which the question of who’s directing/seducing/torturing whom remains constantly shifting open to interpretation. Vanda, you see, turns out to be a quick study — so quick, in fact, that she’s managed to memorize Thomas’ play in its entirety, and brought along a few key props (including an authentic 19th-century smoking jacket that just happens to fit him perfectly) to help set the mood. And as she auditions, with Thomas himself reading the part of Severin, she quite literally seems to become the character — complete with different posture, vocal inflections, countenances — until we can no longer quite say which Vanda is “real” and which merely an actorly illusion.
In its original Off Broadway production at the Classic Stage Company, “Venus in Fur” worked up a feverish intensity, thanks to its close-quarters, in-the-round staging and the galvanizing performance of newcomer Nina Arianda, who seemed, much like her character, to have materialized out of the blue. For the movie, Polanski, always a master of claustrophobic spaces, has opened the play up ever so slightly, shooting in widescreen with usual cameraman Pawel Edelman and setting the action in a cavernous theater where the stage is dressed for a musical production of “Stagecoach” (complete with large, phallic cacti). If the resulting atmosphere is slightly less pressure-cooker, director and actors prove no less adept at capturing the play’s tricky shifts in tone and perspective.
As the two Vandas, Seigner faces the challenge of playing an actress playing a character who may herself be a spurned goddess in disguise, and she moves nimbly through the myriad layers of artifice, sometimes fully “in” her 19th-century alter ego, sometimes outside it, commenting on Sacher-Masoch’s text through the contemporary Vanda’s postmodern, feminist gaze. Amalric has less distance to travel from Thomas to Severin and back again — both of them self-absorbed writers getting a kind of comeuppance —but he makes the part fully his own, more shambling and neurotic than the slick egotist Wes Bentley (replaced by Hugh Dancy for the Broadway transfer) essayed in the original production. Though Polanski’s decision to cast considerably older performers in both roles initially seems counterintuitive, it ultimately adds one more layer to Ives’ dense mesh of reality and fiction.
As on “Carnage,” composer Alexandre Desplat has provided a sparingly used but effective original score, including a haunting, carnivalesque main theme.