The subtly obvious genius of “Venus in Fur” grows on you. Adapted from a successful Broadway show, this film plays with being a play within a play.
Actually, it’s an audition within a play, but not merely that. It’s a whirlwind of a woman, way late for audition time, who taunts the director into letting her read for the part and cajoles him to read the male lines of the play he wrote.
There is only one man and one woman in this French-language film and clever interweaving ensues. The woman seems patently insufficient, yet the actress embodies the role perfectly. The combined-she knows little except for everything that needs to be known. As the director, the man has little control over this session. As the author, or more precisely, as the adapter of someone else’s novel, he is a reality caught between at least two fictions. As a man in and out of his play, he is swirled into this woman’s thrall.
Do you know this word, “thrall”? Likely, you think of the word “enthralled” as in captivated by someone’s charm. However, the foundational definition refers to subjugation, to the bondage of moral or mental enslavement.
Herein lies the seriousness of this intentional amusement that director Roman Polanski (“Chinatown”) has brought to the screen. The book, from which the play and the play within were shaped, was written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. That’s Masoch from whence came the term masochism.
Masochism: “the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification from one’s own pain or humiliation.” So many of the movies out there run more graphic, even kinky, than “Venus in Fur.” As it playfully romanticizes the masochistic potential that yes is in all of us, this film holsters any wagging finger. Meanwhile, “Venus in Fur” delivers the kind of theatrical contrivance that makes for a relatively tame yet serious intimation.
Polanski casts a Polanski lookalike (Matthieu Amalric) and his wife of more than 25 years (Emmanuelle Seigner). Both, especially Seigner, walk this creative tightrope well.