As a follow-up to “Carnage,” his film of “God of Carnage,” Roman Polanski returns to the stage with this adaptation of David Ives’ play, which scored a success both off and on Broadway and is here presented in French translation. “Venus in Fur” halves “Carnage” numerically by featuring only two actors rather than four, but its effect is perhaps even greater.
The piece is essentially a playful-yet-serious rumination on sexual gamesmanship and role-playing presented through a form of theatrical artifice that Polanski embraces while giving it cinematic polish. Mathieu Amalric, looking a good deal like the younger Polanski himself (no doubt intentionally), plays Thomas Novachek, a writer-director who’s adapted the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose very name gave rise to the term masochism. After a frustrating day in the theatre where the play’s to be staged (still fitted out for its previous tenant, a Belgian musicalization of “Stagecoach”) auditioning actresses for the lead role of Vanda—whose meeting with sexual aesthete Severin Kushemski gives rise to kinky give-and-take (though verbal rather than physical) between them—Thomas is ready to leave for dinner with his girlfriend. But before he can get away, an actress also named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife) shows up drenched from the rain and begging to audition despite the fact that she’s late and isn’t even on the schedule.
Thomas tries to pry himself away from the woman, who initially comes across as rather ditzy and vulgar, but she delays him manipulatively, and when she begins to read he’s transfixed by her transformation into the sophisticated, elegant character. He reluctantly agrees to read the part of Severin with her, and before long the characters begin to take over the players for real, though they’re repeatedly wrenched back into their actual circumstance. The relationships between Thomas and the present-day Vanda also shift and swerve. The person in charge changes from moment to moment, though the overall trajectory is definitely toward the woman, until by the close a complete role reversal has occurred. And the very nature of the work comes under intense scrutiny: is Thomas’ play, as he insists, a work about love, or is it, as Vanda—who initially claims ignorance of Sacher-Masoch’s book as well as the adaptation but proves well-versed in both—insists, pornography that’s debasing to women? Even Thomas’ personal life comes under assault, as Vanda teases him over his relationship with the woman she refers to as “the Fiancee” (although at one point she claims to be working for her).
To be truthful, the whole piece—which is a fairly faithful reflection of the original play—isn’t particularly deep. Its banter and abrupt reversals are cheeky rather than profound, and its denouement, in which a mythic form of retribution, also of theatrical bent, is employed to settle matters, comes across as artsy. But though inevitably “Venus in Fur” suffers from repetition and some mediocre patches, overall it’s a wickedly amusing construct, especially when delivered with the panache it possesses here. Polanski seems to revel in the possibilities the theatrical setting presents, and he and cinematographer Pawel Edelman manage to keep the images vital and varied, avoiding a feeling of claustrophobia even though the only visual respite from the interior location are the bookending pans from and to the streets outside (an effect not unlike the famous shot Hitchcock used in “Frenzy”). Credit is also due the smooth editing of Margo Meynier and Harve De Luze and the oddly jaunty score by Alexandre Desplat, which is sparingly employed but no less effective for that.
Ultimately, though, the success of a two-handed like this depends on the leads, and Seigner and Amalric are both superb. She makes Vanda’s transitions, if not precisely credible, consistently enjoyable bits of calculated artifice, and he catches Thomas’ confusion over her irresistible pull on him perfectly. On stage this was basically a vehicle for the actors, and while in this larger cinematic guise it’s less completely so, it’s hard to imagine that it could work this well without them.
In sum, “Venus in Fur” shows that in his old age Polanski is just as inventive and spry a filmmaker as he was in his early days. And if Ives’ play isn’t a masterpiece, it provides fertile possibilities that he seizes upon with an eagerness that belies his years.