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Thread: VENUS IN FUR (Roman Polanski 2013)

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    VENUS IN FUR (Roman Polanski 2013)

    Roman Polanski: Venus in Fur (2013)


    POLANSKI DIRECTING SEIGNER AND AMALRIC IN LA VÉNUS À LA FOURRURE

    Sex power play in a Paris theater

    For Roman Polanski, a film version of Venus in Fur, the claustrophobic play about the power of illusion and the entrapment of sex, seems almost an inevitable choice. This wanted man and perpetual exile has worked another transformation. His 2011 Carnage was shot in France, an English translation of Yasmina Reza's French play. This time he's flipped the other way, shooting in a Paris theater a French version of an English-language drama by David Ives. Polanski's Carnage was fine, with a stellar cast, but his Venus in Fur is more up his alley. The French reviews when the film originally came out in Paris in November 2013 were raves, and the American reviews are too. With its sexual danger and ambiguous identities Venus fits the director's nature more closely than bourgeois couples squabbling over their kids. Here we have a man and a woman, strangers who become rapidly intimate with nobody around to tamp things down or provide a reality check, over a play bringing to life the most famous work of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the M of S&M, in which a man contracts with a woman to be her slave.

    Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife, has a tough act to follow if you saw either of the two original New York versions of this play. Nina Aranda, the Eastern European actress, was so remarkable John Lahr wrote a whole profile about her, "The Natural: Broadway's New Star" in The New Yorker. There was something a little bit strange, miraculous, go-for-broke about Aranda that made her perfect for the role of an actress who blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Aranda's character was a nobody from nowhere who turns out to be brilliant, and that's what she was.

    Seigner is fine and Polanski gets his cameraman Pawel Edelman to give her a voluptuous glow. He has an ace in the hole: his costar. This is a two-hander, and good as Hugh Dancy (and before him, Off Broadway, Wes Bentley) were, you might forget them, in the blinding light of Nina Aranda's performances as Vanda both times. You're not likely to forget Mathieu Amalric. He's an actor who dominates the screen even in servile roles, and his intensity is fertilized by powerful neurotic undercurrents. So here we have two of the best actors in France going mano-a-mano, with the meta-fictional extra that this S&M battle for dominance is being played by the director's own femme. The possibilities are delicious, before we've even begun. Maybe the play (and Polanski's film) just knock their titillating themes of sex roles, power plays, and fiction vs. reality around a little and then let us go home. But the result is richly stimulating and thought-provoking.

    So here's what happens: This crude gum-chewing unknown actress bursts into the theater just after Thomas (Amalric), a playwright, has finished a long and frustrating day of auditions for his new play, Venus in Fur, which will be his first stint as a director. Ives tips his hand right off when Vanda (Seigner) announces she has the same name (Wanda, Vanda) as the character in the play. The game is obvious: Thomas doesn't want to hear her -- she's two hours late due to trouble on the train and bad weather, and she seems too uneducated for the sophisticated German character in the play, but she will, of course, turn out to be perfect. In fact, so far beyond perfect it's spooky. She has a copy of the whole play, which nobody's supposed to, and she knows it all by heart. She also knows how to work the theater's lighting system, about which Thomas hasn't a clue. She has the costumes she needs with her, even for the other character, including an antique smoking jacket dated 1870. And when she starts to speak the part, the uneducated vernacular disappears and she speaks elegantly, in the full-throated voice Thomas had missed in the young actresses auditioning earlier. We begin to think it was the crude babe that was the act, though she reappears each time Vanda speaks off-text. In so many ways, Vanda's more sophisticated than she has pretended. Eventually in the course of the action, the play (film) teases us with themes of dominance/submission. Vanda takes over. Thomas, whose reader for the auditions has gone home, must play Severin von Kushemski, the man in his play who becomes the slave of Wanda von Dunayev. As the pair enter and reinvent their roles, Thomas also becomes the slave of Vanda. Except since it's his play and they're on his turf isn't he still really the dominant one? In S&M, isn't the dominatrix often hired by her "slave"? Well, wait and see.

    Power turnabouts, if not already universal, are especially familiar from Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter onward. But that doesn't keep Ives and his skillful adapter Polanski from working them out in delicious new ways that highlight how essentially theatrical they are, by toying with characters who're an actor and a director rehearsing, or auditioning, or reworking and transcending, a "new" play -- which supposedly is simply a dramatization of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's eponymous novel.

    One can't stress enough how voluptuous Emmanuelle Seigner is in this role, her pale skin gleaming like ivory you'd like to eat, if one could eat ivory. Polansi has none other than Alexandre Desplat providing delicate hints of music when moments become more dreamlike. For Anglophone viewers, the subtitles show the lines of the "play" in italics, clarifying back and forth transitions that in watching the play on stage can be confusing. The play may not go anywhere, but the trip is enjoyable. In his Cannes review Scott Foundas of Variety says the original Off Broadway version was more claustrophobic and intimate, but Polanski's feels more sensuous and present than the Broadway stage and, as Foundas notes, his making both characters older than in the original (both are 48) adds a layer of complexity. If a lot fewer people will see this than Polanski's Carnage, that's a pity.

    Venus in Fur/La Vénus à la fourrure, 96 mins., debuted at Cannes (Competition) 25 May 2013, opening in Paris 13 November 2013 (Allociné press rating 4.1/5 based on 25 reviews).Received five César nominations, and Polanski won Best Director, his fourth. UK opening 30 May 2014; US, 20 June 2014. Seen during a limited showing at Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, California 19 July 2014.

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    Polanski is a filmmakers filmmaker.
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