Polański's Venus delivers an erotic comedy as promised, but not without his signature touch of troubling tension.
Polański has baggage. And, by extension, so does his audience. Unless one has been living in the proverbial cave for the last three decades, it is near impossible to sit down in front of Venus in Fur without some sort of trepidation. On one hand, the film appears to be a logical continuation of Carnage. Adapted from the eponymous David Ives play, it also revolves around a claustrophobic stand-off behind closed doors, in this case in an empty theater. The gist of the action is identical: people, after being cooped up for a sufficient amount of time, spill their innermost – and ugliest – truth. The film is being advertised as an erotic comedy, borderline cliché genre in French cinema. Yet there is to Venus in Fur an element of unease that did not accompany Carnage.
Polański has chutzpah. While several directors have controversial pasts, few have an international arrest warrant issued for sexual crimes, and even fewer would dare dabble into eroticism afterwards. Criminal charges notwithstanding, Polański is at least innocent of the obvious artistic crimes one could have predicted in the late years of such a tumultuous career. The eighty year old legend has evidently no intention of censoring himself to avoid criticism, or to use his art as a platform for whitewashing his name. Venus in Fur is obviously 50% text, 50% sex. What’s more, the intimate autobiographical parallels are overpoweringly clear. That the lead female role – Emmanuelle Seigner – is played by Madame Polańska, everybody knows. That the lead male role – Mathieu Amalric – is Polański’s perfect doppelgänger, give or take a few decades, everybody sees. (Amalric also being of Polish-Jewish background, the two men often crack a few jokes about their possible blood ties when asked about their physical resemblance.)
It is thus in this charged mindset that the audience watches the opening credits. From the very first scenes, the comedic and S&M elements are present: Vanda is simultaneously laughable and exasperating enough to wish her a straight punch in the face right away, no foreplay. She walks in a empty theater to find Thomas, a director in search of a ‘a sexy young woman with classical training and a scrap of brain in her skull’. She is determined to audition for a part in a play based on Sacher-Masoch’s novel – although the near-illiterate blonde bombshell is unaware of that literary background herself. A few laughs are heard, but ultimately the scene is infused with a paralyzing, typically Polanskian malaise. The source of this discomfort is hard to pinpoint, but one instinctively feels that it lies in the strange juxtaposition of Seigner’s sinister good looks and her scatterbrained chatter, which is a rather blatant parody of certain trends in feminist discourse.
(For a summary of the plot and and more background details, read Venus in Fur: Erotism Polański Style)
Sympathy starts out on the side of Amalric’s character, who has to endure Vanda’s initially amateurish theatricals, however it rapidly fades away. While Vanda is vapid and dim-witted, Thomas is tyrannical and conceited. (Is Polański having a good laugh at the media’s expense, parodying his and his wife’s reputations? More malaise.) Thomas reluctantly starts re-enacting the play with Vanda. Even the least-gifted psychics in attendance should be able to foretell the entire plot early on: the two characters gradually melt into their respective roles, and eroticism ensues.
The mastery of the film relies on Polański’s successful spell-casting; everything is predictable, yet nothing is trite. Venus in Fur, like all great masterpieces and all low-budget S&M pornography, uses immortal archetypes as raw material: man, woman, sex, power. While the film probably will fall short of Polański’s greatest, it is nevertheless a fascinating exploration of a particular facet of the director’s wide range of skills. One-on-one tension, a long-standing specialty of Polański, is exploited here in all its glory. Every sound, sentence and image seamlessly come together into a gripping face-off from which one cannot look away.
Polański has the last laugh. There are no surprises, but without knowing why the audience is riveted.
Venus in Fur (LA VÉNUS A LA FOURRURE), Director: Roman Polański. Scenario: Roman Polański, David Ives. Cinematography: Paweł Edelman. Art Direction: Bruno Via. Music: Alexandre Desplat.