DIR: Roman Polanski • WRI: Roman Polanski, David Ives • PRO: Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde • ED: Hervé de Luze, Margot Meynier • DOP: Pawel Edelman • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • CAST: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur is in every sense a follow-up to 2011’s Carnage: both are based on hit off-Broadway plays; both are dialogue-heavy and cast-light; both are one-set productions and thereby direct hymns to theatre, albeit ones with all-star casts. Venus is the story of theatre director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) winding down from a failed day of casting for his new play, an adaptation of the 1870 book from which the film draws its title; a book which introduced the world to S & M as a mainstream concept. Just as he laments the poor quality of actresses he saw that day he is set upon by the gloriously seductive Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), who convinces him to allow her a read-through of his play, during the course of which she gradually gains greater control over Thomas, thus reflecting the themes of the original novel. If this structure sounds familiar it may well be; it was achieved more successfully in thirty minutes in episode 5 of recent BBC series Inside No. 9, which deconstructs Macbeth in a similar fashion.
Venus, like Carnage, has the glue of great performances holding it together. Both actors here earn their stripes from the get-go, with Seigner in particular seducing the audience as effectively as Thomas, unsurprising when considering her husband is directing her and her cleavage deserves an IMDb profile of its own. The story-telling keeps sexually charged as its source material, and while it uses this as a discussion platform for sexual politics and gender as performance fantasy elements wait eagerly in the wings, unseen but felt. How does Vanda know the unpublished script verbatim, or the intricate workings of the lighting rig? Did Polanski recruit Tim Burton to shoot the film’s rain-soaked tracking shot intro?
At its worst this film lags tremendously 40 minutes in, when the core-concept begins to reveal itself and thematic progression departs in favour of bawdy humour and repetition. For a great deal of the second half the shifts in power that ought to cement the film’s worth are entirely unconvincing, and one can lay blame for this largely at the feet of the poor pacing. To shave 20 minutes of Venus would have done it a great service and as it stands it seems as though it may have been Polanski’s clout alone that saved it from hasty last-minute editing.
Ironically then that it is Polanski’s great directorial presence alone that makes this film worth a watch. Not only is it immaculately shot and acted but it bears the ever-so-Polanski theme of female subjugation by male forces with ardency as well as waltzing with ease to a collective of influences so diverse it includes Beckett, Burton and Fellini. This is a film that would have gone unmade were it not for the legendary status of its director and just so it will an eek an audience out amongst the cinephile community if nowhere else; an interesting experiment if nothing more.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Venus in Fur is released on 30th May 2014