“Venus in Fur” marks director Roman Polanski’s return to the world of fantasy and surrealism, a genre he championed in his earliest short films while a student at the Lodz Film School in Poland, like “The Lamp” and “Two Men in a Wardrobe” — even though Polanski’s adaptation of the hit Broadway play by David Ives initially seems like a straightforward black comedy about the battle of the sexes.
And while Polanski adapted the screenplay with Ives and remained loyal to the play, recreating it with few alterations, the movie seems to harken back to Polanski’s work in the 1960s and 1970s, when an often uncomfortable and slightly ominous sense of reality gives way to a trip down the rabbit hole, and the world as we know it goes berserk and the film follows the surrealistic logic of a dreamlike state.
Polanski opens the film on a soaking wet day in Paris, in a small community theater where Thomas (played by Mathieu Amalric) is alone, and in a foul mood. He’s just spent hours auditioning young actresses for the lead role of Vanda in “Venus in Fur,” his theatrical adaptation of the classic novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — yes, that Leopold, whose name became synonymous with the term masochism.
Thomas is on the phone with his girlfriend, trying to express his enormous frustration at how much time he just wasted watching a sting of mediocre young performers vie for the role …. when in from the rain walks a young woman (played by Polanski’s real life wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), who says her name is, by an odd coincidence, also Vanda, and that she had a appointment scheduled for earlier in the afternoon but had a series of bad luck that got her there late.
Thomas checks his appointment list and her name isn’t on it; and Vanda’s overall demeanor convinces Thomas that it would be a waste of time to even bother auditioning her.
Vanda’s tears at her bad fortune eventually convince Thomas to give her a few minutes to audition before he sends her on her way …. only to discover she’s actually strikingly good in the role. They begin reading his play, becoming the two lead characters … until it becomes difficult to figure out whether this is a reading of the play, or a burgeoning sexual role play between Vanda and Thomas. It soon becomes clear that Thomas shares the same burning desire to be dominated and humiliated by a woman as Sacher-Masoch’s lead character, that Vanda is all too well aware of this — but what exactly is her motive in all this?
Good question. The movie, released in France in 2014 and then, quite briefly, in major U.S. cities in the summer of 2014 before going to DVD last November, has some clever answers.
Throughout the early part of his film career, Polanski championed the techniques used by surrealists, and not just in his short films. Reality gave way to a dreamlike state in his movies “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Macbeth,” “What?” and “The Tenant,” all films that feature a lead character trapped in an enclosed space — in the same way that “Venus in Fur” takes place entirely inside that small community theater. Carol in “Repulsion,” Rosemary in “Rosemary’s Baby” and Trelkovsky in “The Tenant” all live in urban apartments that eventually turn menacing for them; Carol and Trelkovsky see hands grasping at them through the walls and windows, and Rosemary dreams — or is it a dream? — that she is raped by a hideous creature. Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo in his Scottish castle, and goes on an even more surreal journey in the lair of the three witches, while Nancy finds the strange Italian villa she escapes to in “What?” to be a place where few if any logical rules are followed.
In the second half of his career, Polanski seemed mainly to abandon surrealism in favor of more realistic films — often times historic costume dramas like “Tess,” “The Pianist” and “Oliver Twist,” or suspenseful dramas with a political twist like “Frantic,” “Death and the Maiden” and “The Ghost Writer.” The only film of the second phase of his career to venture into moments of dreamlike surrealism was “The Ninth Gate,” his 1999 horror movie about a book written by Satan.
“Venus in Fur” is actually the perfect material for a return to surrealism, in that the fantasy elements that Ives provides — particularly the truly out-there ending — is ideal for Polanski. In fact, despite Polanski’s fidelity to the original play (save for the fact that he translates the American play into French), it’s still remarkable how many of the director’s earlier themes reverberate here.
Thomas seems like a clear descendent of the long line of emasculated men throughout Polanski’s entire career — one of the director’s favorite themes, of the way that masculinity gets shredded in an age when women have shed their role as submissive wives. Andrzej in “Knife in the Water,” George in “Cul-De-Sac,” J.J. Gittes in “Chinatown,” Oscar in “Bitter Moon,” Gerado in “Death and the Maiden” and the ghost in “The Ghost Writer” all find themselves watching in passive despair at how impotent they are at taking control and affecting positive change. Polanski plays two of those emasculated characters himself, as Alfred in “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and Trelkovsky in “The Tenant,” almost as a way to demonstrate his solidarity to the once almighty male figure in our society, now left to compete against the newly emergent independent woman.
“Venus in Fur” takes the theme to often hilarious new heights, as Thomas becomes more and more entranced with Vanda’s beauty, talent, and seductive skills. It’s been noted by a number of critics that Amalric bears a striking resemblance to a younger Polanski, and the scene where Vanda puts lipstick and heels on Thomas has remarkable echoes to the moment when Teresa does the same to George in “Cul De Sac,” or to Trelkovsky’s own cross dressing in “The Tenant.” At times it seems like Ives watched Polanski’s entire oeuvre before writing “Venus in Fur.”
As the movie goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out who Vanda is, or what her secret mission is. By the end, though, one thing is clear: men have spent decades using the most sexist means possible to control and subjugate women, even in a situation where a masochist appears to be begging to submit to a dominant dominatrix. As Vanda notes, it’s actually the masochist who controls the scenario, not the dominatrix.
And in the end, payback, it seems, comes with a steep price.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..