Famed director talks about his latest film, 'Venus in Fur,' and how his art sometimes imitates his life
Roman Polanski revels in recounting the story of how he met his wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, to whom he has been married for 25 years, and who is the mother of his two children. The year was 1985, and Polanski was in pre-production on “Pirates,” the problem-plagued, big-budget adventure comedy that remains the greatest critical and commercial failure of his career. With his casting director, Dominique Besnehard, he planned to attend a Paris drag cabaret in search of a female impersonator to play a role in the film. Besnehard asked if he could bring along a young French model who had recently filmed a small part in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Detective” but claimed to have no interest in an acting career. Polanski instantly replied, “Bring her.” The model turned out to be Seigner.
“That was the best casting of his entire career,” Polanski says with a laugh. “It’s funny that I met my wife through a casting director, but it had nothing to do with the film, because there was no role for her.” Three decades later, in his new film, “Venus in Fur,” Polanski has rewarded Seigner with the role of her career.
When they aren’t in Paris, Polanski and Seigner live in a bucolic chalet — all exposed wood and sunlight — in the Swiss ski town of Gstaad, high in the Alps. Polanski first came here in the winter of 1969, after the murder of his second wife, Sharon Tate, and has lived in the town on and off ever since. He is still an active skier, which accounts in part for the lean, agile physique that belies his age. In an interview with Variety last August, right after his 80th birthday, Polanski recalls how his home was abuzz with revelers a few days earlier. Director Brett Ratner, a longtime friend, had even arranged for the local cinema to screen an archival print of “Citizen Kane,” one of Polanski’s favorites.
Now, everyone has dispersed, save for Polanski’s lanky 15-year-old son, Elvis, who periodically passes through with a friend and — in a gesture all but inconceivable of an American teen — happily prepares everyone a lunch of fresh meats and cheeses ordered from a local market. (Polanski’s 21-year-old daughter, Morgane, is studying acting at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama.
It is a tranquil domestic scene, literally and figuratively many miles away from the personal tragedies and public scandals that have followed Polanski for much of his life. In his 1984 memoir “Roman,” the filmmaker said, “I doubt if I shall ever again be able to live on a permanent basis with any woman, no matter how bright, easygoing, good-natured, or attuned to my moods. My attempts to do so have always failed, not least because I start drawing comparisons with Sharon.”
But Seigner changed all that, just as Polanski helped to alter her attitude toward acting. He cast her as the femme fatale who aids Harrison Ford’s Dr. Richard Walker in the search for his missing wife (Betty Buckley) in the taut thriller “Frantic” (1988), and then again as one half of a dangerously destructive sadomasochistic couple in the disturbing, darkly comic “Bitter Moon” (1992). Now, in “Venus in Fur,” she is an indelible combination of temptress and muse in a movie that is all about an actress, a director and the blurry relationship between life and art.
The setting is a cavernous theater on the Champs-Elysees, where the director (played by French star Mathieu Amalric) is holding auditions for the lead role in his adaptation of “Venus in Furs,” the 1870 roman a clef by Austrian writer Leopold Sacher-Masoch, who quite literally put the “M” in S&M. Outside, a storm is raging, and it brings with it a strange visitor, who seems to have tumbled down from the heavens along with the wind and rain, a Mary Poppins among method actors. Her name is Vanda, and although she doesn’t appear on the call sheet, she comes to the audition more than prepared, with the full text committed to memory and her own props in tow. That she happens to share her name with Sacher-Masoch’s heroine at first seems a coincidence, but soon proves anything but.
The story is a diabolically clever two-hander that Polanski adapted with the playwright David Ives from Ives’ 2010 New York stage hit. “I just thought it was a terrific text,” says Polanski. “First, the humor of it. But then the sort of anti-macho spirit of it, and the richness of the allusions.” The director first read Ives’ play in his hotel room during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, where his Oscar-winning 1979 Thomas Hardy adaptation, “Tess,” was being screened in a restored print. “This might be up your alley,” Polanski remembers his longtime agent, Jeff Berg, telling him. As it turns out, Berg was right.
Polanski made “Venus” quickly: One year after first reading the play, he was presenting the finished film in competition at Cannes. It received enthusiastic reviews, especially for Seigner, who shot her scenes by day while appearing at night on stage in an acclaimed revival of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” In France, where the movie opened last fall, Polanski went on to win the Cesar for his direction, the latest addition to a trophy case that includes an American Oscar and the Cannes Palme d’Or (both for “The Pianist”). Later this month, “Venus” will receive its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, before opening June 20 via distributor IFC Films.
“Venus” is, in many ways, a vintage Polanski premise: a man and a woman confined to an intentionally claustrophobic space, enacting a series of slyly shifting psychological and sexual power games. This is, after all, the director who began his career with “Knife in the Water” (1962), a three-character spellbinder about the jealous tension that simmers to a boil when a married couple invites a young hitchhiker to join them on a sailing trip. Then came the terrifying “Repulsion” (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve’s mentally unstable manicurist descends into violent delusions after being left alone in the London flat she shares with her sister; and the grimly funny “Cul de Sac” (1966), whose bickering spouses find themselves marooned with a randy gangster and his wounded partner on a tidal island literally cut off from the outside world.
In the five decades since, there have been more films he has set in dwellings that become a kind of prison around the characters (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant,” “Carnage”). In the chilling “Death and the Maiden” (1994), Polanski’s best film of the 1990s, a survivor (Sigourney Weaver) of torture in an unnamed South American country turns the tables on the man (Ben Kingsley) she believes to have been her captor. And in the wry “The Ghost Writer” (2010), a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) holes up inside his massive Martha’s Vineyard manor to escape a brewing scandal — a movie Polanski found himself editing, in part, from a Swiss prison cell after his 2009 arrest on a decades-old American warrant. Even when he has worked on a more epic canvas, in films like “Tess” and “The Pianist” (2002), Polanski has tended to favor fugitives and outcasts who must survive clandestinely on the fringes of society — prisoners in their own skin.
Critics and journalists have found it irresistible to liken these motifs to the tragic events of Polanski’s life — his childhood in the Jewish ghetto of Nazi-occupied Krakow, the murder of Tate, the pariah status conferred on him by the American media in the wake of his 1977 statutory rape charges. Then aged 43, Polanski pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor, 13-year-old Samantha Gemier (nee Gailey). Threatened with possible imprisonment and/or deportation following a 42-day psychiatric evaluation at California’s Chino State Prison, Polanski fled to France and has lived abroad ever since.
The filmmaker has nothing more to say on the Geimer case than he already has, having made a private apology to her by email in 2009, and a public one in the 2011 documentary “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.”
While many people continue to re-examine his past, Polanski is focused squarely on the future. Eighty, he says, “Is a number, nothing else — just part of the evolution from the womb to the grave.” To that end, he is already hard at work on his next project, “D,” which will reunite him with writer Robert Harris, who adapted “The Ghost Writer” with Polanski from his own novel. The “D” stands for Dreyfus, as in Alfred Dreyfus, the young French artillery officer who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island. Polanski and Harris collaborated on an original script for “D” prior to the making of “Venus in Fur,” which Harris then expanded into a full-fledged historical novel, “An Officer and a Spy,” published in January by Knopf.<
More than a century after the Dreyfuss case, Polanski considers it as relevant as ever. “You can find parallels between state organizations — an army in this case — and the media, a magazine or a newspaper,” he says. And Polanski, who successfully sued Vanity Fair for libel in 2005 concerning allegations surrounding Tate’s funeral, knows of what he speaks. Some will once again suggest his art is imitating his life. “Maybe,” he admits.
But he is quick to offer a different explanation for the recurring themes that run through his pictures: “I always liked the movies that happen within some kind of cocoon rather than on the fields,” he says. “As an adolescent, I preferred a film like Olivier’s ‘Hamlet,’ which had tremendous influence on me, to ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’I like the lieu clos, as we say in French. I like to feel the wall behind me.”
With luck — and proper financing — he hopes to be shooting “D” by the end of the year.
It’s tempting to ponder the course Polanski’s career would have taken had he continued to work in Hollywood.
He left America in 1978, four years after the release of the ’40s noir classic “Chinatown,” one of the most influential of American films — oft imitated, never equaled. But it is also true that by 1978, the ground in Hollywood had begun to shift, and the iconoclastic, auteur-friendly alchemy that had made “Chinatown” possible was rapidly giving way to the impersonal, assembly-line blockbusters that would dominate the ’80s. Polanski famously fought “Chinatown’s” author, Robert Towne, over the tone and direction of the story; Towne wanted the Faye Dunaway character to live in the end.
Today, Polanski readily acknowledges, the film likely wouldn’t be made at all, at least not by a major studio. “Tess,” the first film he made after his return to Europe, secured a U.S. distributor (Columbia Pictures) only after it opened overseas to glowing reviews — and strong box office.
Would he have thrived under such conditions? “It’s difficult to answer your question,” Polanski says, twirling the pasta on his plate at a local Italian eatery near his home. He seems to briefly consider the road not taken. “It would probably be easier to get work if I’d stayed, because most of my films were financed by studios anyway, but at long distance so to speak,” he says. It’s more difficult to do what I’m doing, but maybe that confirms the concept that an artist should suffer in order to do something interesting.”
“I never really imagined how one can retire,” he responds at the mere mention of the word. “What do you do? Gardening? No, no, I feel really happy when I’m working. I think the best moments in my life are when I work. It was my passion when I was a young man, and it remains my passion. I feel probably the way a carpenter feels when he’s making a beautiful chair and seeing the result of his work. The work itself is satisfying, the process of getting the result.”