With due deference to his two best-known and most lauded films, Chinatown and The Pianist, Roman Polanski has always been at his best when working on a more intimate scale, with small casts in a claustrophobic setting. Indeed, one could already see this in his masterful first film, Knife in the Water, a virtual three-hander set mainly on a single boat. Then there are the three extraordinary horror-thrillers of his “Apartment Trilogy”, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tennant, and a pair of deeply disturbing and criminally underrated hostage movies, Cul-de-Sac and Death and the Maiden. Even more recently, he made Carnage, an excellent adaptation Yasmina Reza’s play, God of Carnage, which could be take as a belated fourth entry in the apartment cycle.
However, if Carnage did little to disguise its stage origins, Polanski’s latest, Venus in Furs, which is an adaption of David Ives’ Tony Award-winning two-hander, goes even further and positively accentuates its theatricality. Aside from the eerie opening tracking shot down a rainy and empty Parisian boulevard, the action never leaves the small theatre where a director (Mathieu Amalric) is trying to find the perfect actress to play the lead in his new version of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic novella of female sexual dominance, Venus in Furs. Unimpressed by the auditions, he prepares to go home, but one actress, Vanda, (played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up late and begs for a chance. At first, the writer-director is appalled by this foul-mouthed, gum-chewing bimbo in bondage gear who thinks the play is based on “the Lou Reed song”. However, when she begins reading the part of her partial namesake, Vanda von Dunajew, a miraculous transformation happens, and he becomes entranced by her. What follows is neither a love story nor a conventional battle of the sexes comedy, but rather meta-theatre/cinema of the most playful kind, and Polanski and Ives, who co-adapted the screenplay, constantly blur the lines between actor and director, servant and master, and even man and woman.
The critics who have accused the film as being a little broad and heavy-handed are missing out on a great deal of the subtle subtext. You could write a whole article on what the film has to say about the process of adaptation – from novel to play, play to film – and the nature of authorship, or what it says about the relationship between an actor and their director, or an artist and their muse. At the same time, these critics also seem to be forgetting that this is a Polanski film and part of its appeal lies in its excess and its refusal to settle on a single theme or tone. Yes, it is heavy handed, broad, brash, vulgar and a little tasteless; but it is also extremely subtle, erudite, challenging and sophisticated. It is also, like most of Polanski’s best work, both funny and disturbing at the same time.
Credit must also go to the actors. As a two-hander, the film is on a par with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Sleuth, and Amalric and Seigner not only handle the shifts in tone brilliantly, they change their appearance and demeanour so skilfully that you think you have been watching a whole ensemble cast. The more perceptive critics have also noted Amalric’s uncanny resemblance to a younger Polanski and have realised that this, coupled with the presence of the director’s wife, adds yet another layer to this extraordinary, and very personal work. In fact, Venus in Fur is nothing less than Polanski’s testament, full of sly references to his life, including a pointed joke about child abuse, and to his other films. It would not be too much to say that that it is one of those rare late masterpieces, like John Huston’s The Dead or Visconti’s Conversation Piece that is modest in scale, but not in its ideas, and that it perfectly sums up all the themes and obsessions of its maker’s extraordinary body of work.