Following on from 2011’s raucous American middle-class comedy Carnage – and as we await his long-gestating Dreyfus affair project – Polish director Roman Polanski returns to UK cinema screens with Venus in Fur (2013), a two-handed adaptation of the play by David Ives. The Ives production itself tells the story of an attempt to mould Austrian writer and journalist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Furs – which gave masochism its name and Lou Reed a classic song – for the stage. Mathieu Amalric plays Thomas, a busy theatre director and writer who has spent an entire day unsuccessfully auditioning actresses to play Vanda, the role of the girl turned dominatrix of von Sacher-Masoch’s novel.
Emmanuelle Seigner turns up late as an apparently inappropriate actress and demands to read for the part. She initially appears to have very little understanding of the play and is something of a vulgarian. As such, Thomas is reluctant to waste any more time on this budding thesp. His fiancée, we’re told, is waiting patiently for him at home and there’s a storm brewing outside. However, Vanda is not all that she at first seems and when she begins to audition for the part proper, power begins to shift between the two; the roles of director and directed, man and woman and master and slave become increasingly open to negotiation. As with Carnage, Venus in Fur is once again a chamber piece, its theatrical setting suggesting that Polanski – for now – has retreated into a more intimate filmmaking frame of mind.
A great deal rests on the ability of his main actors to entrance and interest the audience, and this is undoubtedly his latest film’s strongest suit. Amalric is marvellous as the initially pompous but increasingly unsure artist, who is irritated, challenged and finally dominated by Vanda. Physically, he resembles Polanski and the casting of Seigner, Polanski’s wife of many years, will obviously stir up comment about the autobiographical sources for this battle of the sexes. “Why does it always have to be about child abuse?” Amalric complains, and although this might provoke an uncomfortable shifting in the seats, it’s Thomas who is the most challenged and criticised. Of course, the most obvious drawback of Venus in Fur is that Polanski is simply advertising the theatre rather than moving cinema forward. His minimalism will certainly not suit all tastes. However, at its very best his Venus in Fur is a clever and often comical two-hander, with Amalric and Seigner both giving tour de force performances.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.