Literature, be it in the form of a novel or a play, has shaped our society in countless ways and often spawns new trends or ways to approach facets of life. We all learn from them, for better or for worse. While some inspire intellect and social change, others pique our fantastical ideas and lead to more intimate paths. Author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and his novel “Venus in Furs” sparked controversy for its presentation of sexuality, but also coined the term Sadomasochism and the things associated with it. Naturally, this novel made its way on to the stage and the silver screen.
After a long day of auditions and struggling to find the perfect actress for his adaptation of the novel “Venus in Furs”, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is having a hard time. No one can fit the dominating and seductive role of Wanda well-enough and everything is going to hell, until a young woman comes bursting into the theatre to audition. Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) shares the same name as the lead and even has the right attire for the role. Oh, and she also has all the lines memorized. This certainly intrigues Thomas, but he has reservations about auditioning this stranger, especially when he has no one to read for the male lead, Kushemski.
Having an answer for everything, Vanda suggests that Thomas read for the role and that the two get into their characters. The play, dealing heavily with sexuality and the goddess Venus finding a man to act as a servant/slave to her, puts the two into strange roles that bring them extremely close as they read through. As Vanda grows more sexually enthralling to Thomas, her grasp on him and his writing tightens and he becomes more willing to hear her criticism. If she wants the role, she’s certainly on the right track and her skimpy outfits and commitment to her characters promiscuous and commanding ways also helps a bit.
Venus in Fur is the latest play-to-film adaptation from director Roman Polanski and it’s really something else. With touchy subject matter and the possibility to go way too far in some instances, this film flourishes in its tameness and because of the sexual chemistry between the two leads. A play within a film, Venus in Fur is certainly puzzling at times, but it’s wonderful deciphering it and following its characters as they get deeper into other characters. Polanski clearly had fun making this film and its ability to keep your interest as it delves into “interesting” subject matter is remarkable.
Mathieu Amalric, who’s always played a great villain/weasel in other films, shows some extraordinary character development in this film, as his character is always overcoming any reservations he has. He’s always wondering how to perfect his play and keep it true to his vision, but he can’t help but divulge in the seductive narrative provided by Emmanuelle. At times Amalric is introverted and uneasy, but as he gets invested in his lead character, he shows off his range and becomes more subdued by his female counterpart and his emotions take the forefront. His facial expressions are also a joy to watch, as he cycles through every stage of bewilderment and judgment.
Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife in real life, is all kinds of outstanding. Proving to Amalric and the audience that she’s more than a pretty faced actress, she commands the screen and makes her presence known. She is always scheming and her ability to manipulate is diabolically delightful. Switching from playful to commanding in a heartbeat, Seigner uses her body and contemporary feminism to trap Amalric and question the meanings behind the play. She certainly opposes the specific gender roles and interpretations of the characters and adds her two-cents more than once, which is often funny and sound logic. She’s always got a trick up her sleeve and she’s always got you on the edge of your seat.
For a film that’s somewhat about Sadomasochism (S&M for you cultured folks), there’s not nearly as much adulterated content as you’d think. You don’t see too much, but there is quite a bit that’s alluded to. However, it’s presented as more than some kinky thing that people do, rather an expression of one’s devotion to another. The dialogue is fantastic and clues the audience into the fact that sexuality can control anything and anyone, with the right presentation and intrigue. The back-and-forth between Seigner and Amalric is electric and their exploration of servitude and love is fascinating to behold.
For me, what separates plays from films is the level of intimacy and improvisation that occurs in the former. Polanski effortlessly captures those aspects of the theatre and is always making sure that his characters are acting in the moment. There are sound effects when the characters pantomime and seeing the characters break their comfortable boundaries as they get deeper into the play is stunning. It all feels real and the sexual tension is ever mounting. However, there’s still a great deal of comedy to be found in this film too. Whether the characters are joking about each other or the source material, there is a ton to laugh at. If all that wasn’t great enough, the film is in French and everything just sounds sexier and sophisticated.
It’d be an understatement to say that I had a joyous time with this film and I’d send it out to any director wanting to adapt a play into a film. Roman Polanski has a trained eye for adaptation and it’s clear that he understands the theatre dynamic and how to apply it to films. At times, I felt like an audience member watching everything play out scene-by-scene and I was captivated by the energy and passion of the performers. I wanted to give a standing ovation and afterwards, meet the cast and thank them for a job well done. Should you choose to see this film (you definitely should), you’re in for a real treat and I can only hope that we see more adaptations like this one. From the acting, to the dialogue, and even to the direction, everything is on-point and this film will leave you wishing for an encore.
Venus In Fur Trailer