Venus in Fur

Review by Jane Freebury

To begin with, there’s a taste of Paris as we track down a boulevard, between rows of wintry trees. We turn off at a theatre that has seen better days and are swallowed up in the gloom of the empty auditorium. It’s a confident start from one of cinema’s masters of suspense, Roman Polanski. There inside, stage director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has had a frustrating day of auditions with actors of mediocre talent when a late arrival (Emmanuelle Seigneur) bursts in demanding her turn. She is bedraggled from the rain, her eye makeup is running, and she doesn’t appear to have been scheduled anyway.

Thomas needs an actor with subtle skills for the part of Vanda, a woman who seeks a man prepared to become her slave. Not this voluptuous blonde trussed up in leather with a studded collar around her neck. As events teeter between comedy and something darker that is unexpressed, Vanda takes charge.
Eventually she corners him into letting her audition with her relentless determination, wily strategies and total preparedness for the part. Moreover, she has arrived equipped with costumes, props. It is impossible to deny this queen bee what she wants.

The writing is wonderful, blending the lines of the play that Thomas and Vanda rehearse with their own interactions as the boundary between themselves and their individual characters melts away.

Co-written for screen by Polanski and David Ives whose recent Broadway play of the same name is itself derived from a late 19th century novel of the same name, Venus in Fur is a timeless exploration of dominance and submission, and pleasure and pain in the most intimate of relationships. Old style it may be, but it’s a psychodrama about sex and intimacy that today’s explicit sexual encounters on screen can’t begin to understand.

Does Thomas deserve what he gets? He doesn’t seem to want to take the liberties that certain directors have been notorious for. If anything, the casting couch idea has been turned on its head as Seigneur revels in her role with an commanding performance, showing terrific range as she alternates between bubblegum chewing bimbo and elegant, sophisticated vamp.

We have seen Amalric and Seigneur together as a couple on screen before. She had the role of his carer in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, taking dictation as he communicated with his eyelids, the only muscles in his body he could move. Entrapment of a very different kind is on show here, and both actors are wonderfully matched.

And is it not intriguing how similar Amalric looks here to the mop-haired Polanski when he was young? Nothing is an accident in the movies. No less the extra-textual bit of trivia.

In a capsule: Two terrific French actors match each other blow-for-blow in this psychodrama about dominance-submission in intimate relationships. Polanski’s wife is amazing as the queen bee.

4 stars