The Meta Mea Culpa of ‘Venus in Fur’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film. 

Handily, “Venus in Fur,” which is adapted from David Ives’ Tony Award-winning play, which in turn is adapted from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, is about adaptation itself. As if that were not bald enough, it is also a two-person film about a woman and a man worrying over a script on a bare stage. Yet this is Roman Polanski’s finest work in decades. It hones in on elements of horror lurking in ordinary human dynamics with a lurid specificity that the director has not evinced since the drama of his personal life eclipsed his professional life more than thirty years ago.

True, “Venus” treads familiar terrain for Polanksi, who has not returned to the United States since he fled the country in 1977 after pleading guilty to charges of raping a thirteen-year-old girl. It stars Mathieu Amalric – who, with his puckish features and light dusting of facial hair, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Polish-French director himself – as writer-director Thomas auditioning Vanda, a floozy actress played by Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner, for his play about a sadomasochistic relationship. But Polanski seems to be tackling this familiar terrain from a new angle: “Venus” is a superbly crafted meta-mea culpa, a strange new cinema genre that may not be for the faint of heart (don’t try this at home, kids!) but nonetheless transfixes us for its entire ninety-six minutes.

The film begins with a tracking shot that ushers us into a theater as if we were reentering the womb – which, for Polanski, may as well be a tomb. (Recall his “Rosemary’s Baby” if this association isn’t ringing a bell.) It’s the end of an unsatisfying casting call, and Vanda has arrived late to the game. Soaked in tears and rain, she convinces the high-handed Thomas to let her read despite the fact that, with her rough speech and leather-clad mania, she seems patently ill-suited to portray this well-comported lady (also called Vanda) of the late-nineteenth century. But any whiff of Eliza Doolittle goes out the window the minute Vanda snaps open her script and lays aside her chewing gum. The only thing that outstrips the wonder of her transformation is the wonder with which Amalric as Thomas regards it.

Though Ives’ original script is in English, “Venus” is in French, a wise choice given that Amalric’s extraordinary nuance has been lost in translation before when he’s been forced to speak English. (Along those lines, skip “Jimmy P.”) Make no mistake: The lion’s share of this film’s appeal can be credited to its players, who duck and weave around each other with a fluidity we rarely glimpse on this side of the Atlantic.

As Modern Vanda reads aloud from Thomas’s script, she argues with it, as well as with Thomas himself, who is reading opposite her as Kushemski, the man so besotted that he agrees to serve as 1870 Vanda’s slave for a full year. At first, Modern Vanda speaks deferentially with Thomas, claiming an unfamiliarity with the play as well as with its source material. But slowly the actress morphs into a mouthy – and overtly feminist – graduate student type, one who is wrangling with the playwright’s decisions even as she considers how to embody them. It’s pretty sexist, isn’t it? she ventures before going on to say: None of my business. I’m just an actrice.

Her issue – and it’s a legitimate one – is that Thomas only seems to have invested 1870 Vanda with superhuman strength (beauty, wealth, insight) so that he can rationalize putting her in her place. The irony is that in the book by Von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the termsadomasochism is actually derived, this same power imbalance is explored as a means to expose the perceived inequality of men and women as a social construct rather than a biologically determined reality. (It’s an astonishingly prescient book.) Thomas tries to deny the validity of Modern Vanda’s insights – stupid actress! he spits – but it is apparent that he begins to surrender to them. What’s more, it’s also clear he begins to relish that surrender both intellectually and sexually – albeit with the controlled admiration with which a parent may view a child following in his footsteps. At a certain point, though, Thomas genuinely loses control of his own narrative, and Polanski’s lens swoops in on the playwright’s erotically charged terror like the predator he may still be.

The results are surprisingly thrilling, given their skeletal backdrop. Graduate student Vanda morphs again – this time into Venus herself, in all her maddening glory – and she is not to be tamed. Instead, the camera simply backs out from whence it came, presumably with that age-old fear with which men have always regarded female power. That’s a lot to unpack, even more so because the film refuses to do it for us. Sure, the male author’s work has been burst wide open by a bona-fide female goddess, but – to bastardize the old saying – that’s no goddess, that’s the director’s wife!

The ideological messages may continue to shift beneath our feet long after we leave the theater but the solidity of the impact of “Venus in Fur” will be what sticks. What we have here is a story about the transfer of authority – a ménage à troi of power, creativity, and desire – that is required to bring any collaborative work of art (even love) off the ground. And that’s not just sexy. It’s scary.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy