There is an amazing, multi-level meta-fiction to Roman Polanski’s 2013 adaptation of American playwright David Ives’ Venus in Fur, itself an adaptation of the Austrian novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. As in the play, the auditioning actress Vanda (here portrayed by Emmanuelle Seigner) perfectly channels Sacher-Masoch’s dominant female character of Wanda as she slowly dominates the character of Severin. As this is, in fact, an audition for a staged version of Venus in Furs, the play’s director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) stands in for Severin and reads his lines for the playfully brash, yet enchanting Vanda as she slowly dominates Thomas himself, blurring the lines between who is Vanda, who is Wanda, who is Severin and who is Thomas.
This is, of course, straight out of Ives’ play, but additional layers are peeled from this glass onion when one listens to Amalric’s speech, as a director, about the sexuality of youth and how it can alter the entire being of an adult. As Amalric’s Thomas, the director, angrily denies that such a thing is about child abuse, one suddenly is drawn back into reality with the realization that this was directed by Roman Polanski. This, in turn, further blurs the line between who is Severin, who is Thomas and who is Roman. To be sure, Amalric is an excellent actor in everything he does. Still, one must wonder if his casting as Thomas had something to do with his resemblance to the Polanski of days gone by. If Amalric is channeling Polanski as well as Severin, one can imagine that the fact that the word “masochism” was derived from Sacher-Masoch’s own name was firmly set within the director’s consciousness.
To call Venus in Fur “intimate” would be something of an understatement. To be sure there is a great deal of eroticism in the dialogue, but in that dialogue the eroticism largely remains. Seigner captivates the audience as well as Thomas with her body language, voice, sensual movements and mind (Vanda proves to know the original novella as well as or better than Thomas himself), but even during frank talk of nudity and sexuality, the clothes remain on most often and barely any touching (erotic or otherwise) actually takes place.
Venus in Fur is quite intimate in another way, as the entire production takes place within a small theater, within the seats and upon the stage with only two actors in the entire production. By comparison, My Dinner with Andre feels expansive and crowded with extras.
As one might predict, the true fascination in Venus in Fur is the acting itself, and the directing that helped to fuel it. Seigner is perfect as the initially timid and bumbling, if assertive and brash young actress. Likewise, Amalric is excellent in his role as the exhausted and detached director, burned out on the casting process and impatient with this last auditioning actress. At first it is striking to note the way that Seigner’s character Vanda abruptly shifts into her own character of Wanda, while Amalric remains the same when dejectedly reading lines from his own script. Then as the show progresses, Seigner’s transitions become increasingly seamless in her transitions from Vanda to Wanda while Almaric catches up, forcing Thomas to become an actor with a very different voice as he becomes increasingly absorbed within his own play. One can never be quite sure who is playing what role at what time and, in fact, how many more levels there might be inside or outside the walls of the theater.
Venus in Fur does outstay its welcome somewhat in the final act, almost to the point of giving the audience a bit too much in what Polanski (or perhaps, Ives) considers to be payoff. However, the play, whether on stage or screen, never stops being wonderfully acted and entrancing. Every step is a surprise.
The 2014 DVD release is somewhat short on extras, allowing for interview segments with director and stars as well as the theatrical trailer. While the interviews are fascinating and provide an insight that enhances both the screen show and the stage play itself, a DVD commentary would be an excellent companion piece to this overall mesmerizing film.
As for the feature itself, Venus in Fur is fascinating to the point that (subtitles or not), you simply cannot look away from the screen. There is always something to see, hear and feel. Venus in Fur might not exactly be for everyone, but the attentive viewing of this film is far from a masochistic experience.