Venus in Fur, unlike Carnage, is an absolute reminder that director Roman Polanski, love him or hate him, is a mighty fine craftsman when it comes down to the craft of filmmaking. David Ives's Tony-Award winning play upon which this film is based was, in fact, based upon an 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name is likely not familiar to a good many of you who will be reading this review and likely mouthing the words "So what?"
Trust me, it matters.
Thomas, played by a Mathieu Amalric and looking more than a little bit like a young Polanski, is a playwright and first-time director who has grown exasperated as he auditions woman after woman for a key role in his play and he has come up completely empty. He's now alone in the theater when in walks Vanda, played to perfection by Polanski's real life wife Emmanuelle Seigner, who isn't exactly far removed from the other women who have tried out it would seem but who will clearly reveal an understanding of Thomas's play even far beyond that of Thomas himself.
While Polanski's adaptation of God of Carnage fell remarkably flat mostly owing to the source material itself, Venus in Fur is a two-person tour-de-force made all the more forceful thanks to Polanski's choreographing of scenes brought vividly to life by both Amalric and Seigner. Venus in Fur is the kind of film that will elicit a tremendous amount of post-viewing conversation trying to figure out what it's all about or, even more likely, absolutely certain that it is about sex or power or fantasy or reality or even Polanski himself. There is no question that Polanski could have taken this material and made the decision for his audience, yet it's a sure sign of his skill as a filmmaker and his trust of the material that he takes a more observational approach to his material and allows his cast to bring it to life in such a way that suggests but never quite demands definition.
Polanski is and will likely always be more than a little bit of a controversial figure, a man whose triggers for many people an automatic response not so coincidentally along the lines of repulsion. I will confess that on a personal level I find much to dislike about Polanski, but as a film writer I try to set those things aside in favor of an honest critique of his films. There are times his films make me wrestle with my own demons and, I tend to believe, the same is likely for Polanski himself. He's led a dramatic life and it's hard not to watch his films without getting a sense that his direction is often fueled by the thoughts, emotions, and choices that his life has created. The same is very much true with Venus in Fur, a film that initially seems slight and breezy yet grows in its impact as its time winds down until Polanski makes it all matter with a Polanski ending that is not necessarily surprising yet it is immensely satisfying.
It's also not surprising that Polanski is so effective at handling stage adaptations, because there's a certain closed and almost claustrophobic feeling to the material that he tackles that fits very well within the confines of a stage adaptation. Venus in Fur takes place in one setting, the theater, and that setting becomes more and more unsettling the longer the film goes on. Therein lies, perhaps, the truth of what Venus in Fur is truly about, an almost voyeuristic paradise of both intellectual and sensual satisfaction that comes alive the more we watch Thomas an Vanda weave together fantasy and reality, stage and life.
Alexandre Desplat's original score is spry and energetic, dark and delightful while Pawel Edelman's lensing captures the film's integral voyeuristic nature. Bruno Via's art direction capitalizes greatly on the not surprising decision by Polanski to move the film's locale from New York to Paris.
Venus in Fur is currently on a limited nationwide run with Sundance Selects and opens up this weekend in Indianapolis at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema. Polanski fans will definitely want to catch the French and German language w/subtitles film and non-Polanski fans will most certainly want to avoid it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic