A prevailing theme in the work of Roman Polanski has been the psychosexual power dynamic between men and women. This shapes his films from Knife in the Water to Chinatown to Bitter Moon—the way that relationships can be reduced to who is dominant over whom and how this imbalance can shift back and forth in an instant. His latest exploration of the idea is based on David Ives’ play Venus in Fur, itself based on the infamous 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
The novella tells the story of a man confounded by dreams of a tantalizing Venus. His friend Severin gives him a manuscript he promises will end his preoccupation with dominant and cruel women. In the manuscript, a character named Severin is so taken by a woman, Wanda, that he asks to be her slave, a task she accepts hesitantly. As she comes to realize the benefits of being so empowered, Severin feels more and more degraded, reaching his nadir when Wanda meets a Greek man to whom she herself wants to submit. This breaks the spell, and Severin concludes that women, rather than being men’s companions, are in actuality their enemies.
Ives’ play and Polanski’s adaptation both take this essential idea and knock it silly. The movie, currently platforming in the US, opens with a tracking shot down a Parisian street during a violent thunderstorm. It turns towards a dilapidated theater, the camera pushing through the outer-then-inner doors until we arrive at a stage, strewn with props and scenery. Here we find Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), a director who’s complaining bitterly on his cell phone about the sad slate of actresses sent to audition for his theatrical adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novella.
Enter Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), late, wet from the rain, and wearing a long wool scarf and leather jacket. At first, Thomas is utterly dismissive of her, despite her sexy, bedraggled energy and her blatant appeal to his vanity. (When she says she loves one his previous works, and he instructs, “That’s not mine,” she’s ready with an answer, “My bad, I meant the other one”). Thomas softens when she begins to cry, and allows her to do a scene with him.
Vanda feigns not having any particular knowledge of the play, or anything about much of anything else, saying she believes the play has something to do with the Velvet Underground song. On stage, however, she immediately embodies the character, the confident Vanda/Venus, and stuns the director. At first, he breaks character on occasion to reestablish his dominance over her—a lowly, groveling actress virtually begging for a part from the all-powerful director—but the more they dig into the play, the more he gets lost in the submissive Severin character and the more she takes over.
You can see where this is likely headed, but the film offers a twist when the actor and director switch gender roles. At Vanda’s urging, Thomas plays the female lead, just as Severin is confronting her adoration of the Greek playboy. The drama becomes increasingly muddied, until, at last, Vanda presents a brutal refutation of Sacher-Masoch’s philosophy, while laying waste to some salient gender stereotypes.
That Polanski has chosen to make a film offering such challenges, within a narrative steeped in the politics of masochism, may be noteworthy, but it’s hardly surprising. Polanski’s films have never settled for easy targets and facile conclusions. His movies tend to be even-handed in their treatment of the sexes, at least in the sense that both male and female characters can be conniving and power-mad.
In Venus in Fur, as the actors switch between characters and roles, Polanski’s camera too turns on a dime, switching points of view as a way of conflating and confusing the dynamics. Vanda becomes progressively less flighty and easily dismissed as Thomas cedes control to her (or maybe just sees that she is already in control). He’s chosen the overbearingly masculine “Ride of the Valkyries” as his cell phone’s ring-tone, but by the film’s third act, she’s forced him to shut it off after telling his fiancée that he won’t be coming home. Vanda tosses the phone aside, cutting off a link to his previous identity.
The film ends with the thoroughly besmirched Thomas tied up to a two-dimensional cactus when his muse deserts him, much as Krystyna abandons Andrzej after confessing her infidelity, or as Evelyn Mulwray leaves Jake Gittes on that fateful Chinatown street. In Polanski’s films, men too often assume their power is an attribute of their gender, only to discover that what they believe to be true is, like that cactus, only a prop.