Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure, 2013)
I admit that much of Roman Polanski’s later oeuvre has left me cold. Sometimes I wonder if this offers me an overly-easy psychological exit point from contemplating Polanski’s infamy in artistic terms, but the fact remains that most of what he’s done since Bitter Moon (1992) has to me lacked the potency of his early career, as he’s often left the zone of queasy psychodrama that was his specific, ingenious stock-in-trade. The self-evidently second-rate material he’s often worked with hasn’t helped much, from the excessively theatrical and obvious Death and the Maiden (1996) and Carnage (2011), to the minor but diverting The Ninth Gate (1999). The Ghost Writer (2010) was made with sublime poise but proved a film as a cheaply, shallowly cynical as Chinatown (1974) was brilliantly, devastatingly so, whilst his heavy-duty prestige work in The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2006), scarcely left any impression on my memory, seeming more like competent TV movies by smooth artisans than works by a man who was once a high-tensile stylist and bitterly incisive wit. Venus in Fur seemed set to be a reprise of Carnage as another adaptation of a recent, fashionable stage work, a minor aside from the ageing, embattled director. And yet Polanski uses it to stage his most invigorating and amusing plunge into psycho-sexual folly since, yeah, Bitter Moon.
That very “minor” status of the project helps. The set-up is limited, the theatricality again unbound, a folie-a-deux of role-playing and art-life null-zone where the denouement is obvious from five minutes in, and yet it prevents a perfect stage for Polanski’s scourging humour and obsessions to take root, evoking his early work in spades. The enclosed setting and intensely sadomasochistic gamesmanship of Knife in the Water (1962) and Cul-de-Sac (1966), particularly the latter’s gender kink, except that whereas Cul-de-Sac showed a weak man claiming potency but leaving himself more isolated than ever, Venus in Fur shows a self-appointed emperor falling under the heel of a tyrant and loving it. The subject is playwright-turned-debuting director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), who’s staging his own adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s pivotal tome “Venus im Pelz,” but can’t find an actress to fit the part. He’s just on the verge of giving up for the day and leaving the cavernous theatre he’s all alone in on a dull and stormy eve, when in walks a seemingly ditzy candidate, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner). She soon proves a slippery character with a rare and remarkable grasp on her role, and starts claiming the high ground over the hapless auteur. Polanski kicks off with pointed satire that hits several targets, as Amalric’s jerk-off anti-hero rants over his mobile phone to his fiancé about the immaturity of the actresses who auditioned for him, and bemoaning the absence of classically mature femininity: he invites the audience to laugh with a touch of knowing agreement with Thomas, but also primes the audience then to share in his take-down.
But another theme is already percolating, as Polanski reflects on the way closeness to death has defined ideas of maturity in social mythology until recently: Thomas laments that a woman the age of Wanda, Sacher-Masoch’s antiheroine, would’ve had “a husband, six kids, and tuberculosis by now” when the actresses who audition for him are all in the state of perma-adolescence we’re now familiar with. An irony is also already implicit: Sacher-Masoch’s tale came to a conclusion, interesting today and radical in its time, after all the fetishistic roundelay, that men and women couldn’t become real companions until granted the same privileges, and yet Thomas’ project smacks of a desire to revel in retrograde ideals. At least three levels of adaptation are implicit: Polanski adapting David Ives’ source play, which riffed on Sacher-Masoch, poking holes in his dated assumptions but annexing the power of his ideas, and of course Thomas is the representing interlocutor. Little of the dreamy fantasia that was integral to Jesus Franco's loose take on the novel is present here. Vanda gives Thomas his wish as she steadily transforms from caricature of the sort of contemporary airhead he despises into his ideal Wanda, seeming to fulfil his artistic ideal but actually, simultaneously sniffing out the wish-fulfilment underside of the art in the artist. The fact that Seigner is Polanski’s wife and Amalric, who’s long inspired double-takes from me because of his resemblance to the director, is his image, primes us for a sense that Polanski’s offering a comedic but genuine self-portrait here. But the possibility that Polanski is baiting us is equally strong. Nonetheless, as with Tess (1979), Bitter Moon, and Death and the Maiden, the sense that Polanski is diagnosing his impulses to both criminal and victim is implicit, amidst his familiar mordant and tar-dark observations of human behaviour. Venus in Fur doesn’t aim for the same degree of discomfort and threat as his greatest works do, except perhaps for a faint edge in the very climax, and yet it lurks beneath: after all, the plot is quite similar to Takashi Miike’s Audition (2000) as it portrays a women who uses her ability to turn herself into the image of a powerful artistic man’s desire to entrap and abuse him.
Polanski stops well short of Miike’s end-point for such a paranoid, sadistic misandrist fantasy, in part because his subject is officially about the perverse nature of desire and how it contradicts surface behaviour and even personal will: Thomas in the end wants to be dominated. Seigner readily played the unspoilt naïf encouraged to grow into a untameable monster in Bitter Moon for Polanski, and the angel from hell in The Ninth Gate, and Venus in Fur works as partial self-satire in this regard, the conceit of the duo stepping in and out of the roles in the play allowing for instant auto-criticism and meta-commentary. But Polanski knows far too well how easily the force of intense emotion subsumes attempts to rhetorically corral them – indeed it’s the essential assumption of his career, as well as an ugly truth about his life – and that Vanda and Thomas are locked from the get-go in a journey to an inevitable end. Polanski plays at peeling back layers of reality nested in the apparently straightforward tale, as Vanda proves to be not just a superlatively manipulative actress but one with a different motive, logically related to Thomas’ current situation and his simultaneous desire to find safe ground and indulge his phantom tastes. The suggestion that Vanda in fact might even be Venus or one of the Bacchanals who tore Dionysus to pieces, and thus a genuinely strange and cruel goddess, is mooted more than once.
Venus in Fur is littered with neat jokes about theatre and role-playing, smirking at a phallic cactus left on the stage from a production of a stage version of Stagecoach (doubtless with all its phallocratic colonial machismo intact) that becomes Thomas’ crucifix-cum-rack in the end, a joke reminiscent of Ken Russell. The protagonists steadily take on the costume and then personalities of their characters. Most hilariously, the couple suddenly turn with a few tweaks of setting and costume into a patient and psychoanalyst, as Vanda reveals alarming insights into Thomas’ fiancé and his state of mind that prove later to not come from mere insight. But Polanski often seems to be digging into something slightly apart from the usual life-art stuff, as he investigates a problem he sees as inherent in his artform(s), the theatrical and cinematic worlds, which usually congratulate themselves on their tolerance and progressiveness and yet still often cede awesome power to individual egos, who are then given carte blanche to manipulate others into fulfilling their designs, one usually caricatured popularly as a dominant man wrangling diva actresses into line. Venus in Fur sees Thomas getting what he secretly wants by steadily losing agency, as Vanda proves to be a genius in all forms of theatre, becoming not just mistress of Thomas but director.
Polanski settles for the most part to film unobtrusively and subtly manipulate whilst pretending to lurk under Vanda’s wing, quietly tweaking camera angles and lighting effects to render his characters progressively less familiar and stylised. The director’s gift for both wielding the effects of horror cinema and simultaneously burlesquing them is on show as Thomas becomes a glowering shadow wanderer and burning-eyed wraith, before Vanda reconstructs him as a kind of drag-queen Frankenstein monster, and then finally turned into an S&M version of Cesare from Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), whilst Vanda emerges in the end as leering, high-camp vision of dominant female sexuality, wrapped in fur and dancing in Grecian style whilst leering like the daughter of Joel Grey and Divine to tease her mate/prey, a climactic moment that blends the eccentric, the unsettling, and high camp humour with careless pleasure. The pathos of George in Cul-de-Sac, who likewise submitted playfully to a coolly manipulative woman’s gender-bending games, has become here sarcastic punch-line. Brisk, deft, taunting, and sinuous, Venus in Fur is satisfying on some wicked level.