The camera winds down a long Parisian boulevard, passing trees and streetlights in a frenzy, before arcing right and blowing through the doors of the theater like a strong gust of wind. She is Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), the source of this roving POV, and she’s come, fashionably late, to audition for a role. The play, Venus In Fur, is an adaptation of an 1870 novel by the Austrian author Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the term “masochism” originates. The adapter, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), is also directing, and has spent the day seeing and dismissing an endless parade of vapid young actresses. At first, the brassy, motor-mouthed Vanda seems of a kind with those he’s rejected. Eventually, however, she convinces Thomas to let her read, proving herself perfect for the part of a proto-dominatrix. And as the two run through scenes, stepping in and out of character, the power in their nascent relationship begins to rapidly shift.
In other words, Venus In Fur is a life-imitating-art drama, one of those backstage stories in which the line separating actor and role constantly blurs. The film itself is an adaptation, drawn from the pages of a 2010 play by David Ives. Roman Polanski, the master filmmaker, relocates the action from New York City to Paris, but preserves its playfully antagonistic spirit. Few directors, living or dead, have demonstrated a greater knack for the challenges of bringing a theatrical production to the screen; more often than not, Polanski does so not by “opening up” the play, but by embracing its inherent confinement. Here, as in his recent take on God Of Carnage, the director navigates an enclosed space with cinematic flair, his dynamic camerawork assuring that the talky proceedings never feel especially “stagy.” More than that, though, he makes the single setting a claustrophobic benefit instead of a liability: There is no escape for Thomas, who’s in for a very thorough dressing-down.
But Polanski isn’t a miracle worker. Venus In Fur works where the facile Carnage largely didn’t because the play itself is something of a delight—a straightforward but sharply comic twofer about roleplaying and control-based relationships (be they artistic, romantic, or otherwise). The casting, too, is impeccable. Amalric, who bears a faint resemblance to a young Polanski, makes Thomas a repressed coward tiptoeing around his own desire for submission. He’s matched—outmatched, even—by Polanski’s wife, Seigner, in what amounts to something of a dual role, given its fluid shifts from the coarse irreverence of Vanda to the more elegant seductiveness of her character. Vanda is a force of comeuppance, both mastering and neatly deconstructing the “S&M smut” for which she auditions. Thomas, hiding behind fidelity to his text (“It’s in the book!” he pleads more than once, when Vanda calls out the sexism of his work), can do nothing but bend to the logic and raw talent of his muse. Polanski, performing his own act of cross-medium translation, is in the same boat.