It is hard to believe that director Roman Polanski is actually eighty years of age, and as such, whenever he has a new film out these days, there comes the realization that this quite possibly could be his last. However, Polanski seems to be a man of boundless energy and even at his current age, it does not look like he will be slowing down his output anytime soon. “Venus In Fur” is his latest film and is his second consecutive film that has been adapted from a play, has a limited cast and is set entirely in one location (the other film was “Carnage”). While I would love to see Polanski make one final psychological thriller or horror film before his time is up, along the lines of “Repulsion” or “The Tenant”, at his age this is probably not a realistic expectation. However, if the conclusion to his filmography is going to be of the quality of his most recent film, “Venus In Fur”, then I would be more than happy to watch him go out making these small intimate films.
“Venus In Fur” is set in Paris, where a woman attempts to audition for the lead role of the stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book “Venus In Furs”. The woman shares the same name as the main character in the book, Vanda, which in her mind makes her perfect for the role however it is going to take a lot more to convince Thomas, the uninterested writer / director of the play. Vanda finally convinces Thomas to let her read a passage from the play, and she immediately impresses to the point that he asks her to continue reading. Throughout the next hour and a half, Vanda and Thomas dissect and examine the play, whilst playing out the parts as a strange psychological battle breaks out between the two of them, as each attempts to gain dominance over the other. Reality and fantasy starts to blur as scenes from the play soon begin being played out in real life, as the roles of our two characters slowly begin to reverse and a battle of power intensifies.
To be honest, I must admit that I was not really expecting much out of “Venus In Fur”. I know nothing of the original book nor the play this film is based on, and after watching “Carnage”, seeing Polanski do another stage-bound movie in quick succession kind of disappointed me. However after viewing the film, I could not have been more wrong. “Venus In Fur” is a brilliant film that has been expertly made from the master, Polanski. His direction is just sublime, and it is obvious that he has lost none of his skill in making a movie or telling a story. Along with the smooth editing, he does a stunning job of telling this story in such a fluid way. Nothing is showy and it gives the appearance that what you are watching is one long single take. This couldn’t be further from the truth because there are cuts constantly, but because these are never obvious or in your face, it gives the feeling that what you are witnessing is actually happening then and there and not just part of a movie.
While the film has only two characters and is set in one location, “Venus In Fur” never becomes boring on a visual front, thanks mainly due to Pawel Edelman’s subtle and moody cinematography. Like everything else in the film, the images are not flashy, but every shot has been framed to perfection and Edelman has lit the stage in such a dark or dim matter that befits the psychological battle of the film to a T. When you adapt a play for a film, one thing you try to do is hide its stage bound origins and open the film up a bit so it plays more like a film, rather than a filmed play. Polanski has the harder task of doing just that but with the added complication that the location is the stage itself. Despite the fact that the location itself is quite open and shouldn’t have a feeling of constriction, Polanski is able to create a tense atmosphere throughout the film that gets increasingly claustrophobic as it goes along. You are forever uneasy while watching “Venus In Fur” because there is a feeling that something else is going on behind all of that text.
Speaking of the text, the screenplay of “Venus In Fur” is incredibly dense with the whole film being obviously dialogue driven. The words spoken by our characters obviously have more meaning than their surface appeal, as Vanda starts to question the story and the motivations of its characters, as well as the motivations of the author who adapted the play, Thomas. She starts asking whether the outdated views of the play make the work sexist, or if it protected under the umbrella of art. She also starts questioning if the material has a personal connection within Thomas and if this is the reason he chose to adapt it, and if so what does this say about him as both a man or artist? This is all heady stuff but Polanski delivers it in an entertaining and fun manner (the film is very funny at times), whilst increasing the tension as the story builds.
Roman Polanski is no stranger to psychological battles set in limited locations, with both “Knife In The Water” and “Death And The Maiden” being two prime examples and “Venus In Fur” fits in wonderfully with these films. As good as “Carnage” was, Polanksi’s influence was limited somewhat while here, “Venus In Fur” feels exactly like a Polanski flick. You can feel his sensibilities throughout the film, and as well as the aforementioned film, I also felt a little bit of “The Tenant” coming through here.
When it comes to the actors of the film, there are obviously only two, and they are both fantastic. I have never been a fan of Emmanuelle Seigner as an actress, and have been underwhelmed by her presence in most films I have seen her in, particularly the ones she made with her husband, Roman Polanski. However she is stunningly good as Vanda which is such a complex role and she nails every nuance perfectly. I honestly did not think that she had this in her. Vanda starts off as this ditsy airy fairy girl, but by the end she is so powerful, and domineering and Seigner handles this transition seamlessly. Mathieu Amalric is just as good as his character’s arc follows the opposite trajectory starting off in the position of power only to end up quite submissive to his actress’s whims. It also doesn’t escape me just how much Amalric looks like a younger version of Polanski himself, and I am sure he is no doubt an avatar for the director.
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed and entertained by Roman Polanski’s “Venus In Fur”. It is an intelligent and dense work of art that looks at the battle between the sexes via dominance and submission. The film works on many levels but I particularly liked the psychological tension that permeates throughout. Once again, Polanski has expertly crafted tension, suspense and a palpable atmosphere out of a single location and only two principal actors. “Venus In Fur” also harkens back to some of Polanski’s older work like “Cul-De-Sac”, “Death And The Maiden” and “The Tenant” which can never be a bad thing. For such a minor film from a giant filmmaker, “Venus In Fur” is still a massive achievement and quality filmmaking in its entirety.