Film review: VENUS IN FUR, from Built For Speed

The ever-controversial Roman Polanski is back with his latest film Venus in Fur.  This film which depicts an audition for a play which is based on another play which is based on a novel and which also toys with perceptions of Polanski himself, takes the concept of a meta-movie to a bizarre new level.  Not surprisingly, it’s hard to tell where reality ends and fiction begins in this film.

Venus in Furs was originally a novel by German author Leopoldo Von Sacher-Masoch from whom the expression “masochist” came. The novel described the sexual subjugation of a man named Severin by Wanda a woman named with whom he was infatuated.  David Ives later adapted the story to the New York stage and made Severin an exasperated play director and Wanda a deceptively naive aspiring actress.  Polanski’s film is essentially an adaptation of that stage play.

Mathieu Almaric plays Thomas a theatre director forlornly putting together a production of his play also called Venus in Furs. He bitterly complains that no actress is capable of playing the lead female role of Wanda when suddenly Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) stumbles out of the rain hoping for an audition.  Acting like a clueless gum-chewing trash-bag, she at first appears completely inappropriate for the dangerous alluring (literally whip-smart) role of Wanda.  After haranguing Thomas to let her read the part of Wanda, with him reading Severin, she delivers a remarkable performance that utterly entrances Thomas. As they continue reading, often drifting in and out of character, the power relation between actor and director begins to shift as she directs and critiques him and slowly forces him into the subservient role adopted by the male protagonist in the play and the novel.

This is not quite a filmed play as there are a few brief scenes outside the theatre and Wanda and Thomas are not performing in front of an audience. It is mostly filmed on one stage but prop and lighting changes help to drastically alter the mood of each scene and prevent the film from becoming too static.

Appropriately, this film belongs to Emmanuelle Seigner who delivers one of the year’s best performances in a remarkable role that sees her credibly transform into a completely different person across the course of the film.  Mathieu Almaric is also terrific as the flustered Thomas whose arrogance and self-assurance evaporate during his puzzling exchanges with the intimidating Vanda.

Amusingly, Mathieu Almaric has been styled to look like a young Polanski making it clear that the director is exploring long-held personal beliefs and anxieties about the relationship between actors and directors and his lifetime experiences.  Thomas even laments contemporary society’s obsession with political correctness and in particular its condemnation of child abuse.

The film wryly examines cinema and theatre conventions while forcefully addressing issues such as sexism and the debasement of people in relationships.  Polanski also appears to be making a statement about the nature of art and artists, including film makers, as they become subservient to audiences and public taste.

This film’s commentary about these types of issues may not prove riveting cinema for all filmgoers but the strange and unsettling relationship between Thomas and Vanda and fine performances from Seigner and Almaric should prove highly seductive for many audiences.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Roman Polanski.

Release date: 17th July 2014

Running time: 96 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 


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