Not one to deliver the stiff, pale affair that often results from stage-to-screen translations, Roman Polanski gets electrically theatrical and delectably cinematic in his adaptation of “Venus in Fur,” playwright David Ives’ two-hander. Sensual and intellectual sizzle makes up for an absence of deeper impact.
Polanski, whose credits include “Knife in the Water,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Ghost Writer,” again places characters in confined spaces, generates menace and peels away layers of civility to reveal individual pathologies and human baseness in this second consecutive adapted play (following and out-juicing “Carnage”) from the writer-director.
Co-written with Ives — who based his play on an 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the name doesn’t lie) — and translated into French, the story transpires in a Paris theater where an arrogant author-director named Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has been holding auditions for the female lead in his own play based on Sacher-Masoch’s book. Only “idiot actresses” have tested for the role, Thomas gripes.
In walks Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a late comer whose name mysteriously happens to be that of the character in the play.
Wet from the rain, or perhaps from the firmament, Vanda strikes Thomas as one more coarse, gum-smacking bubblehead. She even refers to what Thomas deems Sacher-Masoch’s “beautiful love story” as “S&M porn.”
But Vanda persuades Thomas to let her read for the role and convinces him to join her by reading the part of the male lead, Severin.
She astonishes Thomas with her prescient understanding of the material, which involves a sadomasochistic pact. She has even brought costumes fitting Vanda’s incarnations: respectable woman, dominatrix and goddess.
The action stems from the shifts in power that occur between the characters. Severin becomes increasingly dominated, transfixed and terrified by the ascending Vanda. Thomas responds similarly to Vanda the actress.
Sometimes, Thomas and Vanda slip out of character. Cell phones ring. Vanda questions Thomas about his fiancee.
As the characters engage in games featuring bondage, emasculation, stage props (including a suggestive-looking cactus left over from a musical production of “Stagecoach”), and a Greek finale, the film doesn’t delve deep. Thomas and Vanda — does she want to whip all the Thomases of the world into submission on behalf of actresses eternal? Is she an otherworldly avenger? — come across largely as symbols.
The turn-the-tables dynamics fall short in terms of their purported feminism.
But the filmmakers cover numerous intriguing areas — such as sadomasochism in the director-actor relationship, the thrill of the theater, the artistry of the actor and French people who name their dog Derrida – with intelligence and humor.
Polanski blends agility and intensity as exquisitely as ever.
The result is a flambé confection that pleases as a cat-and-mouse drama, kink fest, comeuppance tale and showcase for some extraordinary talent.
While it’s hard to ignore that his casting choices — Seigner is Polanski’s wife and Amalric physically resembles a younger Polanski — may reflect an attempt by Polanski to address his treatment of actors, both stars handle the material’s intricacies superbly. Seigner, whose Vanda is the wider-ranging role, is a blazing force of intellect and carnality.
Cinematographer Pawel Edelman underscores Polanski’s ominous and playful tones.
Venus in Fur
Starring Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Written by David Ives, Roman Polanski
Directed by Roman Polanski
Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes