Great artists have the gift of turning any source material, no matter how diverse, into an encyclopedia of their own obsessions. Whether you like it or not, Roman Polanski is a great artist, and even the minor films of his fugitive decades glimmer with the claustrophobia and sardonic bleakness of his greatest work. Which is to say that “Venus in Fur,” the 2010 David Ives play that conquered off-Broadway in 2010 and Broadway in 2011, has been thoroughly and maliciously Romanized.
(The standard disclaimer applies: While Polanski may be a great artist, he has been a horrible human being at least once in his life, and if you choose not to put aside his 1977 sex crime conviction to see the movie, that is your understandable right.)
The story is multileveled but quite simple. A playwright-turned-director named Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is adapting for the stage the infamous 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von
Sacher-Masoch, the man who put the “M” in S&M. (Think “50 Shades of Grey” in period costume times 10.) He has been holding auditions all day and despairs of finding a modern actress who can play the dominant Vanda von Dunayev.
As he is packing up, one last actress bursts into the empty theater: Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a crass, gum-chewing mess. Yet as she browbeats Thomas into letting her read — with the playwright standing in for Severin, the submissive male aesthete — Vanda reveals a regal and all-encompassing understanding of her character. Thomas is hooked. Let the mind games begin.
The New York production made a star of the young actress Nina Arianda, who took Vanda from zero to 60, goofball to goddess, in 90 electrifying minutes. If you were lucky enough to have seen “Venus in Fur” on Broadway, Arianda is hard to erase from your mind (put it this way: I don’t even remember who played Thomas), but Polanski eases the transition by translating the play into French and using Pawel Edelman’s swirling camerawork and Alexandre Desplat’s arch score to usher us into the land of cinema.
It takes a bit more to adjust to Seigner, and not just because she’s Mrs. Polanski. Where Arianda was in her mid-20s when she played the role onstage, the film’s Vanda is somewhere north of 40 (Seigner is 48) and her sensuality is mature, weathered, tempered by time and experience. The character is in some sense ageless, but Arianda gave it the agile playfulness of youth. Seigner’s Vanda has seen it all, and she revels in that knowledge like Titian’s odalisque. This is a very good, very dextrous performance from an actress who knows she has never been taken seriously enough.
Amalric is equally strong, even if he’s doing all the catching. As onstage, “Venus in Fur” gleefully juggles the earthly and the metaphorical, slipping imperceptibly from audition to the play’s inner world and back. One minute director and actress are bickering about dramaturgy, feminist porn theory, and Thomas’s fidelity to his unseen fiancée, the next they’re immersed in their roles as Severin and Vanda, conquered and conqueror. Or is it the other way around? Questions rise out of Ives’s cleverly calibrated interference patterns: Does this play worship women or humiliate them? Does Sacher-Masoch? For that matter, does Polanski?
It’s not an idle thought. While it remains a two-character drama unfolding on an abandoned stage, this “Venus in Fur” is of a piece with early Polanski classics like “Knife in the Water,” “Cul-de-Sac,” and “The Tenant” — elemental power plays in which men and women battle for emotional and psychological supremacy in tightly enclosed spaces. “Venus” is the most schematic of the bunch, and arguably the weakest, especially when the film threatens to become a cartoon in its final minutes. It’s still an unsettling entertainment with caustic things to say about men in general and its director in particular.
So this is a personal film? One looks to Polanski for a confessional at one’s peril. And yet how could it not be when the director has cast his own wife and an actor who’s a ringer for his younger self? (They’re probably even related; back in 2008, the British Guardian reported that Amalric’s maternal grandparents came from the same Polish village as Polanski.) “Venus in Fur” is a tremendous gift to an actress but it’s written by a man and here directed by a man, and as the story grovels at the feet of its Vanda, we sense everything a man can feel toward a woman: adoration, cruelty, guilt, bafflement, complicity, horniness, resentment — the works. None of which pierces the veil of self-absorption to arrive at real understanding.
“What do you know of my nature, apart from your imaginings?” the actress demands of her director toward the end. The answer, of course, is less than nothing. And still the poor, deluded slob tries to direct the show. He’d probably scoff at the notion, but this may be as close to a public apology as Polanski will ever come.
“Venus in Fur” trailer:Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.