Movie review: Actors’ skills dominate frisky ‘Venus in Fur’

06/26/2014 10:00 AM

06/27/2014 11:43 AM

Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), the wannabe actress in the frisky, dazzlingly acted French-language “Venus in Fur,” questions director-playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), from whom she seeks a part, about his choice of material. Thomas’ decision to adapt a 19th century novel with sadomasochistic elements suggests he’s a perv, Vanda says, no matter how much he calls the book important.

This moment in turn invites speculation about why director Roman Polanski chose to adapt David Ives’ acclaimed two-person Broadway play into this film, screening at 8:15 tonight at the Crest Theatre in the Sacramento French Film Festival. It’s also available on cable on demand.

This speculation arises partly because Polanski has added an extra “meta” element to this story of an actress and director locked in a power struggle while rehearsing a play about sexual domination. He cast his wife (Seigner) as the actress and a guy who looks like Polanski (Amalric) as the director.

Mostly, the thought occurs because Polanski has directed a film about sexual power dynamics.

Must the name of one of the world’s foremost directors always carry an implied asterisk? Yes, because he fled the United States decades ago to avoid being sentenced for unlawful sex with a minor, and never returned. The asterisk exists when he makes a drama about the Holocaust, and certainly when he’s made “Venus,” a comedy/mystery with SM themes.

A few moments in “Venus” cannot help but evoke the Polanski legal case, partly because I could not help but look for them. These fleeting moments affect the story, and one’s ultimate appreciation of it, very little. “Venus” serves more as a reminder of Polanski’s great way with actors than a comment on his character.

Seigner and Amalric, also co-stars in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” give performances here that could not be finer nor more different in approach. Amalric’s expressive eyes announce Thomas’ every desire, whether he’s dismissing Vanda’s initial request for an audition because he wants to get home to his fiancée, or later, when he’s intent on matching Vanda’s performance after she insists he audition onstage with her.

Seigner, by contrast, plays about seven layers, not counting the 1870s dress she wears over the modern-day bondage outfit in which Vanda shows up at the scruffy Paris theater where auditions are being held. The audition is for Thomas’ play based on the real-life novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom the term “masochism” derives.

Vanda arrives very late, with Thomas the only one left in the theater. Her name is not even on the list. But she brought a head shot and short résumé highlighting her turn as Hedda Gabler at the Urinal Theatre.

Gum-chewing, coarse in manner, she tries every trick in the book to persuade Thomas to give her an audition. She compliments Thomas’ previous work – though she gets the title wrong – plays up her sexuality, goes for sympathy by bemoaning how she’s always being rejected as not right for a part.

But even Vanda’s woe-is-me moments carry hints, in the set of Seigner’s jaw and glint in her eye, that Vanda does not lack confidence in any situation. Thus Vanda quickly becomes a figure of genuine intrigue.

Though “Venus” occurs almost entirely in a theater, it is less stagy than Polanski’s 2011 stage-to-screen adaptation “Carnage.” That film used more locations but was airless. Here, Polanski uses nifty close-ups – of Seigner applying lipstick in a mirror, of a boot being zipped up – to break up the sameness of setting and increase tension.

Vanda wears Thomas down. He agrees not just to read lines but truly act opposite her as the play’s protagonist, a gentleman called Kushemski who likes the feel of fur and of being dominated.

Thomas’ own kinks are more complex. He lacks any visible interest in Vanda at film’s start, despite her racy outfit. But once she goes into character, as the upstanding but curious woman Kushemski has designated to degrade him, her manner immediately grows refined, her once-grating voice now mellifluous. Thomas looks at her as if for the first time.

His thing clearly is talent, and he’s a goner for someone who can deliver his lines just as he intended. From this point on, Amalric has Thomas visibly weaken every time Seigner exerts power. That’s practically always.

As Vanda and Thomas rehearse the play within the film, they will break character, she to comment on the play’s sexism, he to give Vanda direction – all while being acted by someone married to Polanski and someone who looks like him. These scenes are so loaded with implications about male-female relations and about artistry that one’s head would explode were they not so well played.

Seigner’s and Amalric’s ability to move seamlessly between play and film dialogue reflects not just acting ability but years of experience as working performers. That they are in their late 40s – older than the Broadway cast – suits the material. Were he younger, Amalric would not be able to pull off the spiritual weariness he lends Thomas. Same with the steel Seigner brings to Vanda, who hardly requires the boning in her corset.

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