In his private life, Roman Polanski has incurred the wrath of many people. He’s also the cinematic genius who created masterpieces like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. It’s often hard to weigh these two truths against each other. Can we really judge him only on his work and conveniently blank out what he gets up to in private? You’d have thought that in his current state of disgrace, he’d stay well away from films of a questionable sexual nature, so what are we to make of Venus In Fur, a movie whose very raison d’être is to stir the murky waters of human sexuality? Based on the play by David Ives, it’s a two-hander, which is played out in a deserted theatre and as with his previous movie, Carnage, Polanski has made no real attempt to ‘open it up’ for cinema viewing. To further cloud the waters, the film stars Emmanuelle Seigner (or as she’s sometimes know, Mrs Polanksi) and Mattieu Amalric, an actor who bears a strong physical resemblance to the director. What was Polanski trying to say here? Is this intended to be some kind of vindication of his personal life? It’s hard to say but surely these things cannot be mere coincidences?
Amalric is Thomas, a writer and director, who has just been auditioning a series of actresses for the lead role in his titular play, an adaptation of the infamous novel by Baron von Sacher Masoch (from whom the word ‘masochism’ derives.) We join Thomas at the end of a fruitless audition, where he’s expressing his hopelessness at ever finding a young woman capable of playing his heroine, Varda. Then a woman stumbles into the theatre, a woman with that very name, who begs him for the opportunity of a quick read-through with him. Tom is reluctant at first, but eventually succumbs to persuasion and quickly begins to realise that not only is this Varda very accomplished in the role, she seems to know an awful lot more about him and his work than he might have expected. As the actors become subsumed into their respective characters the sexual politics swing back and forth as they struggle for supremacy…
First of all, both Seigner and Amalric offer nicely nuanced performances and the onstage antics aren’t anything like as overt as you might have supposed. There’s little in the way of nudity and the film has comfortably managed a 15 certificate. The script veers from clever and incisive to occasionally rather clumsy (some vague hints that Seigner’s character might be supernatural are never really consolidated.) Ultimately, the film is fatally skewered by a sudden (and frankly rather risible) ending that undoes much of the actors’ best efforts to make this unwieldy contraption fly. It’s by no means awful, but neither is it in the same league as Polanski’s best work and this one should be filed under ‘interesting failures.’