The eighty-one-year-old grandmaster Roman Polanski always knows how to tell exciting and entertaining stories in his films with small and simple plot lines. “The Ghost Writer”, for example, is based on the simple fact of a main character helping a former prime minister of England complete his memoirs. In Polanski’s hands it produces a claustrophobic film. Also “Carnage”, his penultimate film, has that effect. In it, the filmmaker takes the viewer to a demarcated apartment in which two couples have an out of control argument about their children.
The tension and demarcation of space are reflected in Polanski’s latest film: “Venus in Fur” (the original title is “La Vénus à la fourrure”). The conflict, a third and perhaps the most central theme in his work, is also present. They are the ingredients for a highly entertaining film that continues to captivate from start to finish.
“Venus in Fur” opens with a view of a rainy boulevard in Paris. The camera slowly takes the viewer into a theater. In a small hall, the theater director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), dissatisfied with the auditions he had to undergo that day, is about to leave. Until, out of seemingly nothing, one last auditor emerges for the female lead in his adaptation of the original book Venus im Peltz (by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name sado-masochism is taken, a recurring element in the film). The jumpy and spontaneous actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) wants to convince Thomas to be the perfect candidate for the role.
From this springs a delightful role-play in which the relationships between the two characters are showcased in many ways. The classic mutual role patterns that the film starts with are completely turned upside down. Interestingly, these struggles take place in multiple dimensions. First of all, there is the hierarchical distinction between the male director and the humble actress who has to obey all orders. In addition, there is the division of roles of the play that they are rehearsing themselves. In it Thomas plays the submissive slave and Vanda, as a rich scion of the Austrian bourgeoisie, is believed to have the higher rank in the pecking order. Finally, filmmaker Polanski’s relationship with his two actors is also something that makes you think. The three separate components come together in a sophisticated Droste effect in which director Thomas (and Polanski) ‘s perception of the differences between men and women is powerfully at stake. Pain, humiliation and power are the ingredients in a rather humorous film in which nothing is what it seems.
The sound plays a well-considered role in this. As the two reenact the piece, their dialogues are supported by the sounds that would be heard if the scene actually took place. So when Thomas pretends to pour a cup of coffee, the viewer actually hears it flowing. The lighting and the decor are in turn more than just part of the cinematography, but have an active function. Ultimately, it is an ingeniously constructed game of finesse that Polanski here presents the spectator in an emotional long take. The role the enigmatic Vanda plays in this remains a mystery until the end.
Polanski proves with “Venus in Fur” that he has not lost strength at his age. In fact, the film can be counted as a subtle highlight in his extensive oeuvre, also because all the themes and iconography of his previous films seem to come together here. This film is a great cinema in all its smallness.