Film Review | Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski triumphs with this non-exploitative expose of sexual dynamics; a frothy, spiky two-hander that never lets up but neither devolves into cheap shock-and-awe tactics. 

Mathieu Almaric and Emmanuelle Seigner tackle the ur-text of sado-masochism in Roman Polanski’s latest psycho-comedy
Mathieu Almaric and Emmanuelle Seigner tackle the ur-text of sado-masochism in Roman Polanski’s latest psycho-comedy

For all the persistent – and often entirely justified – complaints about Hollywood’s enduring streak of sexism, this year has actually been an interesting one for subversive cinema (anti) heroines.

While big Hollywood players like Marvel insist on casting their female characters as proverbial Cinderellas, making them either peripheral to the main action (see: Scarlett Johnasson’s Black Widow) or casting them in ‘feisty’, but nonetheless secondary, ‘girlfriend’ roles (see: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts), the more international ring of the cinematic mainstream has actually yielded some nuanced (if not admirably troubling) female leads.

Whatever you think of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac duology, the fact remains that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe – the film’s titular serial philanderer – exists in part as a direct affront to the sexually neutered women we tend to see in films over and over again.

And in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Johansson’s largely-silent alien seductress allows her to delve into far deeper territory than anything she’s done under the Marvel stable; the film’s calculated unease forcing viewers to re-asses their expectations of how the female body – and female sexuality – is portrayed on screen.

Roman Polanski’s play-within-a-film (or rather, audition-for-a-play-within-a-film) may have none of the science-fictional strangeness of Under the Skin, nor the pornographic provocation of Von Trier’s erotic opus. But with a healthier dollop of humour and a cheeky meta-fictional structure (the film is based on the David Ives play which itself dramatises an attempt to adapt the source novel), Venus in Fur playfully sets about deconstructing ingrained clichés about feminine ‘types’, without falling prey to stifling binaries about who the aggressor and the aggressed may be in any given relationship.

It is the tail end of a long day for playwright and director Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Almaric). Fed up of working with stage directors who never get his vision, he is determined to direct his latest project himself: a theatrical adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic novel Venus in Furs (fact fans: it is thanks to this 19th century erotic psychodrama that we have the term ‘masochism’).

Alone in the theatre after a long day of auditioning actresses for the lead role for the story’s dominatrix-to-be Vanda von Dunayev, he gets a visit from an unexpected and tardy auditionee: a rain-drenched and flustered blonde who also happens to be called Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner).

Itching to shoo Vanda off despite her eagerness to get the part, Thomas reluctantly decides to give her a shot at the play’s first scene… and he’s intrigued to discover that the apparently ditzy actress appears to have a natural grasp of the material. His intrigue gradually morphs into obsession as he encourages the audition to go on.

This is Woody Allen with a firmly beating, devious heart. This is a non-exploitative expose of sexual dynamics; a frothy, spiky two-hander that never lets up but neither devolves into cheap shock-and-awe tactics.

Some of the truths it engages with are a bit more pat than the overall film tries to be. The ‘master-slave’ paradox has been trafficked long enough to become a lazy truism: the idea that it’s the submissive party that wields real power because they actually asked to be dominated and get what they wish. In the tussle that ensues between Thomas and Vanda, this is one of the key strands. But luckily it’s not the only one, and the layered dual character study twists and morphs so dynamically that the viewer is never allowed to settle on a single, flat interpretation of what these characters are all about.

Melding fantasy and reality simultaneously, this is a very rich two-hander. In a lot of ways it’s the perfect two-hander: our characters are peculiar enough to draw us into the murky depths of their psychology, but sane enough to not collapse into bizarre caricature, and to allow us the ease of laughing both at and with them when the time is right.

Clearly putting blind trust in his performers, Polanski employs no gimmicks to boost the play with a ‘cinematic’ wash. Instead it’s in the subtle signals that he reveals his directorial hand: a genially spare use of music often functions as the world’s best laugh track – manipulating the mood just enough to remind us not to take the duo’s disturbing journey into self-knowledge all too seriously – and inserting sound effects for invisible props shows an affection for the material while also being a wink at the audience.

The bug-eyed Almaric may have been one of the most ineffectual Bond villains in history (Quantum of Solace), but he’s a perfect fit for Thomas: nervy, insecure, rearing to implode.

But Saignier is clearly the centrepiece that we’re meant to adore, and she manipulates that expectation with both cleverness and intensity. Vanda is a clueless coquette hiding oodles of natural talent, and as she reveals herself to be far more than meets the eye, Seigner shifts dramatic gears, not in the way a showy, Oscar-baiting Meryl Streep would, but invisibly – in the way we expect our best actresses to (and in the way the budding director Thomas does too, of course).

This multi-layered comedy goes down a treat. A real treat, though if this were a piece of actual confectionery, it would likely be hiding a healthy drop of hard liquor at its centre.

Venus in Fur will be showing at Eden Cinemas until September 16, as part of the Side Street Films initiative.

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