Part of the fun of David Ives’ play Venus in Fur is its meta-riffing on plays within plays, novels within plays, and actors who play actors who continually swap and adapt new roles. In Roman Polanski’s film version, this blurring and smashing of the traditional framework of fiction is further blended not only by the fact that the camera adds an additional layer to the art-within-art conceit, but that the lead roles are played by the filmmaker’s real life wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) and the French actor Mathieu Amalric, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Polanski himself. Add to the mix the fact that Polanski, infamously, can’t set foot in the United States because of a decades-old sex scandal involving an underage girl – and Venus in Fur is about sexual perversion and dominance, feminine power and rage, and the suppliant, masochistic nature of masculine love – and you have a bewildering film that reads like a hall of fun house mirrors.
Getting lost in the reflections provides most of the fun. It opens with the camera trolling forward down a stormy Parisian street that looks digitally crafted and heading through doors of a theater. Inside, the director and playwright Thomas (Amalric) is packing up after a day of auditions for his adaptation of Venus in Furs, a 19th century novella by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch known for its themes of female dominance and sadomasochism. In bursts Vanda (Seigner), a voluptuous, but crude gum-chewing actress who has arrived hours late for her reading. Thomas doesn’t take her seriously, but he can’t seem to usher her out of the theater. She feigns stupidity while bullying her way onto stage, and as soon as she starts to read the part, Thomas is entranced by her power – as an actress and a woman, as a shape-shifter and a goddess. They continue and the relationship complicates and deepens. They swap parts, improvise, come in and out of the script, all in a pirouetting flow of language that brilliantly blurs the boundaries of its art while mixing in the reality of the setting and always tapping us on the shoulder to remind us that we, too, are watching a fiction. Vanda, it becomes clear, is a divine seductress, and she has scripted this evening perfectly. As it escalates, Thomas – or is it the character, or Polanski? – is her slave, dominated and abused, heart twisted and wrung. What we can’t quite put our finger on is whether or not what drives it is love, lust, or lust for blood.
I finished Venus in Fur wishing I had a volume of Micheal Foucault’s The History of Sexuality to pluck off the bookshelf and leaf through. The complex interplay of sexual dynamics, the blurring of S&M and Greco-tragic imagery gives the film a pulsating intellectual undercurrent that isn’t always readily available. Polanski’s achievement here is in the performances he elicits from his actors, performances which in themselves seem to reflect back on the power dynamic between director and actor. And his camera glides easily around the stage, keeping us sure in its setting – the facsimile of the theater – but also using the static nature of cinematic perspective to spin the stage so it continually changes its shape, tonal color and function.
But for what, we are left wondering by film’s ambiguous end, after Vanda has unleashed the full wrath of her Bacchanalian rage? Perhaps what feels both intellectual and emotional resistant about Venus in Fur is its most revealing titillation, that the twisted, perverted heart of this three layered persona – character-director-filmmaker – bears a striking and unsettling similarity to our own.