The name of Roman Polanski brings with it a sense of expectation and a hint of hesitation. There is perhaps an extra level of dubiousness when watching the work of a man mired in a past as dramatic as any of his cinematic depictions. His work of late (The Ghost Writer, Carnage) has been to a high standard – perhaps not on the level of The Pianist or Chinatown – but adapting a David Ives play, based on a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and then translated that into French seems like an incredibly risky gamble.
Carnage too was adapted from stage, though that had a certain safety to it – a domestic environment with four highly skilled actors confined to a single apartment. Here again the space is a single room, but in this case it is a theatre – one that can be manipulated by the actors and the director alike, going from intensely dark to more hauntingly empty with each passing scene. With two actors Polanski is able to create and warp a singular relationship with infinite skill and prowess, as one might expect from a visionary of multiple decades.
The plot is based on an easy enough premise – a writer-director, Thomas, played by a jittery and almost intrinsically emasculated Mathieu Almaric (most recognisable to English audiences as Dominic Greene from Quantum of Solace), is about to leave auditions for his new adaptation of Sache-Masoch’s novel, when the mysterious Vanda, a bedraggled actress with few credentials arrives at his door. It is Emmanuelle Seigner (La Vie en Rose)’s Vanda that carries the film in many ways, easily capable of jumping between her bedraggled, frenetic Vanda and the poised, graceful Wanda von Dunayev she is auditioning for.
Polanski is undoubtedly successful in bringing out a strong and hilarious relationship between his two characters in the midst of a frenetic script that jumps spontaneously between extracts of fictitious script and dialogue between director and auditionee. That said the difficulty lies in bringing what is essentially a meta-theatrical script to screen, in that it loses some of its novelty. Watching Seigner manually change the lighting on stage would have certainly been more of a novelty had she actually done likewise in a theatre, as was the case in the original David Ives script.
It was midway through watching what is a strong piece of cinematography, as I sat next to a snoring man slumped in his seat, that I realised what my main issue with Venus in Fur was. The subtitles of the film used italicisation to distinguish between the dialogue of the characters and the dialogue of the fictitious Venus in Fur play. A French viewer would not be privy to such detail and as a result would be left guessing if these two characters were quoting the scene or simply having a natural dialogue, as the distinction between the two begins to break down as the play progresses. Using rudimentary French knowledge I attempted to ignore the subtitles, but was not always successful in doing so, and can only mourn the fact that, whilst indeed this was a fine film, perhaps a different choice of typography would have made it a lot better.
PHOTO / Indiewire