La Vénus à la Fourrure (Venus in Fur, 2013)

Roman Polanski offers a revamped verbose sadomasochistic experience that manipulates Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner and his audience.

Venus in Fur - Poster

Roman Polanski is known for his preference towards provocative and extreme themes. Despite the fact that in his recent films he has avoided this emblematic way of expression, his last work really reminds what the essence in Polanski’s filmic world is. The French-Polish director adapts for the screen American playwright David Ives’ theatrical play La Vénus à la Fourrure (Venus in Fur, 2013) which is inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘s novella Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs, 1870). The film premiered at the 66th Cannes Film Festival and won four major awards at the 39th César Awards, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

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Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric) is an arrogant and pretentious playwright and stage director. His last play is inspired by Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs and now he is casting actresses for the lead role of Wanda von Dunayev. After an unproductive long day spent in the theater, Thomas is about to leave when another actress named Vanda, arrives. Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner) seems impressively unprepared for the role and quite ignorant about the whole concept. Despite his initial reluctance, Thomas agrees to rehearse with her and he is performing the male leading role of Severin von Kusiemski. During their rehearsal, Vanda unfolds her hidden talents since she knows all the lines by heart as she is slowly evolving into a true version of Wanda. Thomas will start to feel overwhelmed and intimidated by her and soon their play will become exceedingly realistic, especially when Vanda starts to hold the whip hand.

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The filmic adaptation of Venus in Fur stays quite faithful both to the original play and certainly to Sacher-Masoch’s book. It is already known that the novella has historically been predominate reference to themes of sexual submission and female dominance while it is also generally acknowledged as the inspiration behind masochism since the writer developed its ideas to an absolute point. The film deals with these same ideas but this time through a witty dialectic on the general concept of power and subjugation. So the film is not limited only to a sexually centered transfer of authority, but goes further to even a political or generally social level. Through the tense and fragile balance that is built between the two leading – and only – roles, Venus in Fur brings these delicate and subversive subjects on the stage of a Parisian theater and shockingly close to the viewer.

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The whole procedure is presented as training between Thomas and Vanda that has some inevitable hinted elements of the Pygmalion Effect kinkily blended with a perverse and visually intriguing sex role-playing. The once puissant director would gladly forfeit his didactical position that he was holding as he is now mastered by a seemingly oblivious and garrulous actress whose metaphorical and literal tour de force will enjoyably dominate him. They both know what is consciously “imposed” as rightfully acceptable, but they will prefer to make some obvious mistakes in order to satisfy their inner unspoken needs for pain and control.

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For Polanski’s connoisseurs and admirers, an edgy unconventional film with some obvious sadomasochistic traits is something to be expected even at this time of his career. Luckily the auteur is true to his notorious artistic past and delivers his best film since The Pianist (2002). Also his decision to follow closely the adaptation of Ives’ play – that was written by him and the playwright – is quite challenging. If Ives’ bipolar two-hander play-within-the-play could seem already perversely ambiguous and bold for its heroes then Polanski’s film version of Venus in Fur accentuates their claustrophobia and the intimacy between them. All the action takes place on this theatrical stage; there will be almost no other scene away from that closed and secluded space. The two protagonists and the viewer should stay together through this whole endeavoring slow procedure.

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The direction could feel quite minimalistic since there are so many limitations to be developed differently, but at the same time Polanski is capable to offer continuous unexpected visual surprises of almost dreamlike subcutaneous illusions in his storytelling. In that way, the director successfully transfers the theatrical atmosphere to cinema, by following the rules of both arts. This technique has already been presented in the past in films like Ingmar Bergman’s Efter Repetitionen (After the Rehearsal, 1984) and Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).

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Apart from the technical correlation, the previously mentioned films had also an extremely personal affect from their creators and Venus in Fur is no exception. Besides the sociopolitical projections, Polanski also adds another element to his sadomasochist story, a slight reference to a child abuse. This pointedly self-reflected remark is obviously addressed to his accusers for the already known sexual scandal and to anyone else that could feel intimidated or scared by his dangerously playful provocation. So Polanski creates an unexpected perplexed connection among his fantasies, his infamous myth, some hints of sadomasochism and the obscure reality.

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His subtext will be empowered through the exceptional performances of Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner. Amalric becomes an overexposed humoristic almost grotesque Polanski’s alter ego that keeps him alive and kicking on stage and on screen. Seigner, who is Polanski’s wife in real life, gives probably her best performance of her career and this could feel somehow uncomfortably intriguing because she acts strangely natural as Wanda. With all these elements, Polanski creates an exciting and meticulously detailed jeu d’esprit that manipulates both his actors and his viewers. By changing the rules constantly, the director gives the feeling that everyone could take advantage of the other at any moment and under one condition that you should never leave yourself behind during this never-ending exchange of powers, unless you enjoy it.

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Eventually Venus in Fur could be at the same time a Polanski’s game, an exercise in style on his perspicacity to adapt a theatrical play, his personal challenge to speak tongue-in-cheek to his critics, a revamped verbose sadomasochistic experience, an excuse for the unrevealed voyeurs that want to watch a festival film that is not ashamed to look behind the scandalous keyholes, a dreamy journey of some innermost desires or an excellent farce to those who think of sex more seriously than they should. But it could also be none of all these, because once you enter a game of powers you can never be sure when and where it really ends, you just want to know who holds the whip.

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