For Roman Polanski’s latest, the now octogenarian director has adapted David Ives play Venus in Fur, which is itself based on the 1870 novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Taking place entirely in a theatre setting, the chamber piece sees a playwright, Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric), who is directing his own adaptation of Venus in Fur, interrupted at the end of a long day of auditioning the lead role by Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner), an actor late for the reading who insists on being seen, despite Thomas’ obvious disapproval of her appropriateness for the role. We then have two actors, Amalric and Seigner, playing the part of an actor and a director, themselves performing roles.
The role for which Vanda auditions, Vanda von Dunayev, is a supposedly genteel lady, who, after a chance encounter with Severin von Kushemski, is persuaded by him to take him as a slave, in order for him to act out his fantasy of being dominated by a woman. Whilst reading scenes from the play, Vanda dissects the gender imbalances of the text – a piece that explored the presumptions and origins of perversion, and whose author’s name inspired the term ‘masochism’. As an adaptation of a play, Polanski is relatively timid in exploring the cinematic possibilities of the theatre, aside from some witty Foley work to enhance the characters mime, and Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat’s wry and playful score, the action is presented mainly as shot – reverse shot between the two characters.
The real interest here is in the argument between Vanda and Thomas as to the true meaning of the play they are performing. Initially, Vanda ‘performs’ the part of the clueless actress, playing with Thomas’ assumptions about women, who in turn is a character recognisably arrogant and bourgeois. Gradually revealing her knowledge of Thomas’ source material, Vanda’s antagonism then becomes a key delight in the film, as she throws out accusations of sexism and misogyny present in both Sacher-Masoch novel and in Thomas himself. “You’ll never be safe in the hands of a woman,” is but one line taken as evidence of the play’s innate gender imbalance by Vanda, also evidenced by the power exchange in an actor in need of work and a director able to grant it. Though Vanda appears to influence Thomas, directing him and exposing his flaws, his ability to take her seriously is ultimately hindered by the power he holds over her.
When the roles are eventually reversed and Thomas embodies the weak, female role that Vanda has accused him of reinforcing all along, the question then becomes whether Polanski has done anything to dismantle our assumptions of the male director/female muse dichotomy. If we take Thomas for Polanski, is Seigner punishing him for indulging his own fantasy of female dominance, and is it in fact enforced by the camera’s lingering gaze over Seigner’s impressive form? Yes, the woman ultimately holds power over the man, but in the eyes of her director, she’s also an object of lust. Venus in Fur is then at once a deeply unsubtle examination of sexism, and something of a mystery in its sexual politics.
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