Film of the week: Venus in Fur

Mr and Mrs Polanski make carnival work of von Sacher-Masoch’s bag of kink.

Roger Clarke

from our forthcoming July 2014 issue

In their last film together, Roman Polanski cast his wife as the Whore of Babylon. Here she returns the favour, playing a jobbing actress attending a theatre audition and turning the tables on writer-director Thomas, played by Mathieu Amalric, standing in for Polanski, until he is utterly humiliated.

Amalric makes a good Polanski, that much we already know. Their resemblance is the stuff of legend. Polanski’s son Elvis played Amalric’s fictional younger self in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

On the cast list of that film was also Mrs Polanski – otherwise Emmanuelle Seigner, whom Polanski met through his casting director Dominique Besnehard more than 25 years ago in pre-production for Pirates (1986). But Pirates is just about the only film in the Polanski canon not referenced by Venus in Fur, which seems to involve nods to The Tenant (1976) in particular, but also Cul-de-Sac (1966), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Tess (1979), Bitter Moon (1992) and Death and the Maiden (1994). That said, this is Polanski’s most simple and unalloyed film, a joyous two-hander and as near to a comedy as Polanski has ever been – bearing in mind his customary attraction to discomfort, panic and a nagging imminence of the sinister.

We open with the flicker of lightning on a Parisian boulevard lined with trees and quite empty of people, with the camera gliding smoothly down the street before taking a right into a theatre, where a sign displays an audition notice for the play Venus in Fur.

On stage we find Thomas animated and on the phone, noisily complaining to his girlfriend that the auditions have been a disaster, with a list of annoyances that doesn’t quite add up – the actresses came wearing braces or speaking in squeaky voices: “Half looked like hookers, half like dykes,” he grumbles. What’s happened to real women these days? He could do a better job himself if he put on a dress and high heels. The POV switches and we see that a woman has come into the auditorium – an actress, dressed in leather and wearing a dog-collar round her neck, her wet hair stuck to her skull, folding up a cheap umbrella. It’s Seigner.

Initially it’s clear that Thomas is disgusted by this apparition – she’s ignorant, coarse, chews gum and blows bubbles, asks him enraging questions and totally misunderstands his purpose. But from the outset he’s also puzzled by her – she somehow has a coffee-stained copy of his play, knows all the lines, and yet the supposed appointment made by her agent has somehow not made it on to his call-sheet (he never does ask who her agent is).

Her name is Vanda, or so she claims – the same name as the main female character in his play. Speaking very forcefully he attempts to get her to leave; he wants to go home to his dinner (though we later gather no such dinner awaits him).

But while he is distracted by another phone call from his girlfriend, Vanda has somehow changed into a period dress pulled out of her voluminous bag. Soon, through a combination of flattery and insolence on her part, he finds himself on the stage reading the role of the play’s main protagonist, Severin. To his astonishment, this bawdy actress transforms herself immediately into a quiet and seductive lady of manners from the 1860s. By the end of their version of the play, he is wearing high heels and lipstick and has been tied by her to a stage prop.

Polanski’s Venus in Fur is an adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name, adapted itself from the 1870 novella Venus in Furs by the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch based his novella on his own experiences, so in this hall of mirrors, Polanski’s film is a version of a version of a version of a life.

The term masochism was coined after Sacher-Masoch’s pathology. In his life and in his novella he defined a role that we would now recognise as a sexual submissive and a fetishist; he forms a relationship of abasement with a woman in which he is ritually humiliated by her, going on holiday to Italy and posing as her servant Gregor, for example, travelling in uniform in third class while she went first (the horror!). Masoch/Severin was sexually aroused by dominant women wearing furs of all kinds, following a childhood experience of being thrashed by an aunt and thrown on a fur coat as the deed took place, while approving servants watched. A great-great-uncle of Marianne Faithfull, he died insane, an undaunted furry freak.

Seigner and Polanski’s last film together was The Ninth Gate (1999), in which Seigner plays a satanic seductress who grins horribly at examples of savagery (“I didn’t know you had it in you,” she says to Johnny Depp during a violent attack) and embodies all kinds of uncanny and unholy aspects, at one point floating down from a balcony in a rare example of supernatural actuality from this director. And although Polanski has insisted that Venus is a comedy about the vanity of directors doing auditions and the S&M dynamic of the director hiring and controlling actors, and that he doesn’t believe in the occult, there is nevertheless a touch of sulphur about Seigner’s Vanda (agreeably she calls on God in an early scene, addressing him as ‘Seigneur’).

Her bag of tricks, which she brings in with her, seems like something from a Central European folktale, a bottomless bag. From it she pulls an 1870s dress very like ones seen in Tess, and a green dinner jacket, very similar to Polanski’s in The Fearless Vampire Killers.

From this bag seems to come the kitchen knife we last saw in Rosemary’s Baby – held at one point to Amalric’s throat – and the lipstick that was smeared crudely on the face of Donald Pleasence in Cul-de-Sac. From this bag too come long leather kinky boots, though it’s her own high heels, which she has taken off and discarded, that she forces Thomas to wear, inevitably recalling the scene from The Tenant in which Polanski himself dons a dress and goes out to the balcony of his Paris flat, the distant windows and roofs changing fantastically in his mind into theatre boxes and stalls not dissimilar to the ones in Venus in Fur.

This is Polanski’s second theatre adaptation in a row after Carnage (2011), and at the age of 80 he shows no signs of slowing down. It’s easily his most enjoyable film for some time. Again working with cinematographer Pawel Edelman (like the film’s composer Alexandre Desplat, a friend and regular collaborator), he uses one camera sparingly, with a dark stage and pools of light, embracing and playing with the idea of theatre lighting.

Sound is used minimally and beautifully (adding a clink to invisible cups that Thomas and Vanda are pretending to use on stage) and the music itself often undercuts and recontextualises the apparently sinister elements on show; Desplat’s East European/Greek medley during the final dance, in which Seigner is naked but swathed in a long fur stole (where did that come from?), creates a kind of mad carnival and fairground feel in something that would otherwise be a spectacle of horror – she is a demonic Greek goddess come to exact her revenge on a footling male who dares to approach and comment on the power of womankind. She is Robert Graves’s White Goddess, a Jungian entity of formidable strength, a pagan, as she indeed calls herself at the end. How much further will her vengeance go? We glide out of the theatre the way we came before this is revealed, but one suspects it will not be too savage.

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