Roman Polanski‘s Venus in Fur is a film haunted by an epigraph. It’s a quotation from the apocryphal Book of Judith, used first by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in his similarly titled 1870 novel and later by David Ives in his play, from which this film is directly adapted. It goes something like this: “The Lord hath smitten him and delivered him into the hands of a woman.” The biblical context is the slaying of the Babylonian general Holofernes, whose unfortunate drunken stupor made him easy prey for the knife of the Jewish hero. Polanski’s film is somewhat more wordy, but not necessarily more complex.
The quote is the epigram on the play-within-a-film, an adaptation of Venus in Furs for the stage by playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric). Late in the evening after a failed day of casting for the female lead, a mysterious and brash woman enters the theater. Thomas is the only one left in the building. She is Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), and she has fought her way through the rain to be here, no matter how late. Seductively demonstrating her interest in the part, she convinces him to stick around and give her an audition. She does share a name with the character, after all. And, as happens in darkened imaginary casting calls, the line between reality and theatrical fiction begins to blur.
The plot of the original is one of sado-masochism. Severin Kushemski offers himself as a slave to the extraordinary Vanda, whom he has just met. Vanda the actress, exploiting the lines of Vanda the character, pecks away at Thomas’s defenses and gets him to admit just why he is so fascinated by this story. Is he a masochist? Is his masochism sexist? Is that quote, the one about the smiting, a node of sexism in his script? Their rapid-fire dialogue escalates and escalates, a whirlwind of domination and submission festooned with leather and vocabulary.
Perhaps the problem is that Polanski shows his hand too soon, eager to reach the play’s final twist. There’s something more to Vanda the actress than her ditzy demeanor and surprising thespian skill. Unfortunately, you can see through Seigner almost immediately. Her Mary Poppins bag, full of very vintage garments, is the first hint. Then her confident diction and controlled manner turns this into a mythological battle of wits much faster than, say, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This leads to a few problems. Firstly, it’s not particularly erotic. Every rise in the sexual tension feels pre-ordained, even more so the moments of sexual subversion. A moment of gender reversal late in the film might have been provocative years ago, but here it falls flat. Part of the problem might be the translation from stage to screen, and all of the requisite shifts in experience. Giant in front of us, Thomas and Vanda are more instantly allegorical. It’s harder to hide the colossal, divine themes of the last act.
At the same time, however, Polanski doesn’t offer much in the way of an argument for his cinematic adaptation. Here is a film with a great deal of grandeur, particularly in its final moments, but the director keeps everything closed within the theatrical space. Nothing is open, nor malleable. Even the music, a Greek-inspired score from Alexandre Desplat, seems to sit entirely on the surface. Words fall from the mouths of the actors like waterfalls, amounting primarily to noise. At times it feels like a game of strip poker for the amusement of aging European intellectuals rather than a thrilling new work of erotic, philosophical fire in touch with a 21st century gender politics.
In the end, then, this is another filmed play from Polanski. While Carnage at least gave us some hilariously memorable performances, however, Venus in Fur offers very little. It is so excited by itself, and its own dramatic conclusion, it barely thinks to stop and take time to excite the audience. Given that the whole thing is ostensibly about sex, this is something of a bummer.
The Upside: Mathieu Amalric has the best face currently working in French film.
The Downside: The film fails to be sexy, has little ambition to prove its usefulness as a film, and blows its cover too quickly.
On the Side: The best thing that ever came out of that Judith quote, if you’re interested, is this Caravaggio painting.