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There is something voyeuristic about watching VENUS IN FUR, Roman Polanski‘s newest film. The film stars his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, playing an actress vying for a part. She auditions for the director, played by Mathieu Almaric, who sports an unmistakably Polanski-esqe floppy haircut. On screen, they work through the creative process while exploring a developing sexual and personal connection. The camera is confined to a single stage. Cluttered with props from past productions, the frame feels claustrophobic. With anything that feels so voyeuristic, there is something both nauseating and satisfying about observing this intimacy unfold.

More accurately (though less scintillating), the film cannot be simply boiled down to Polanski airing his marriage out to dry. VENUS IN FUR is much more intelligent than that. The film begins with actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) stumbling late into an audition just as director Thomas is wrapping up a frustrating day of casting. Through the kind of haphazard antics reminiscent of screwball comedy, Vanda convinces Thomas to allow her to read a scene. She is flamboyant and blunt. He is tightly wound and pretentious. Yet as they begin to read together, they start to unravel a complicated dynamic. Bouncing in and out of character, analyzing, criticizing, improvising in the most rapid of dialogue, viewers are left unsure of where art and reality diverge.

Much of the action centers around an adaptation (within an adaptation, within an adaptation) of the 18th century book of the same name. Its author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is responsible for the concept of masochism, spawning from the main character’s predilection for spanking and other submissive kinks. The title refers to a specific episode in the protagonist’s youth where he was whipped for bad behavior while swathed in his aunt’s fur. As an adult, he pines for a woman willing to make him her slave. Back in the casting room, Thomas calls it “world famous literature.” Vanda fires back that it’s nothing more than “S&M porn.”

The dance between actor and director as they read through the scenes becomes darker as they dive deeper into their characters. Thomas tyrannically orders Vanda around, sculpting her into the dominatrix of his play. Vanda, who proves more savvy than her original impression exuded, is nimble and open to his direction. She begins to prod into his private life, his own sexual desires, humiliating him as she chips closer to the truth. To Thomas’ horror and pleasure, Vanda takes control. As the characters shift, the action hardly ever sobers, instead reveling in its own absurdity. Thomas puts on high heels and lightning strikes with cheesy timing. There is a campiness to this film that keeps it just afloat of the dark abyss it implies.

The film is adapted from the Tony Award-winning American play that opened in 2011, and it remains very play-like on the screen. Polanski works hard not to take away from the actors apart from the occasional creative touch, such as adding sound effects as the actors mime cups of tea, rustling paper, and whipping sticks. Ultimately this adaptation would have made a fantastic, perhaps better, theatrical piece with Seigner and Alminac starring in their respective roles. Both actors are at their finest, balancing the comic and tragic on a razor’s edge. Yet there is a unique tonality that the film takes on simply by the fact that the project was plucked by Polanski himself. One cannot ignore the implications of a film about hazy sexual protocol as told by a convicted child rapist. When Vanda suggests that the whipping of a young boy could be read as child abuse, Thomas shudders at the remark, exclaiming, “Why does everything have to be a social issue?” Yet VENUS IN FUR does not appear to make an explicit argument. The film makes precise accusations of misogyny as well as the sexual tyranny of oppressive social systems. Polanski as the director just adds another layer to the complexity of these questions. With art and sex, how fluid can the power dynamic really be?

VENUS IN FUR (2013) [96 min]

Kendall Square Cinema
355 Binney Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA 02446

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