VENUS IN FUR (Roman Polanski, 2013)
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at Third St., 212-924-7771
Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway between 62nd & 63rd Sts., 212-757-2280
Opens Friday, June 20
For his third stage adaptation in ten years, following 1994’s Death and the Maiden and 2011’s Carnage, Roman Polanski has created a marvelous, multilayered examination of the intricate nature of storytelling, consumed with aspects of doubling. David Ives’s Tony-nominated play, Venus in Fur, is about a cynical theater director, Thomas Novachek, who is auditioning actresses for the lead in his next production, a theatrical version of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s psychosexual novella Venus in Furs (which led to the term “sado-masochism”), itself a man’s retelling of his enslavement by a woman. In the film, as he is packing up and about to head home, Thomas (Matthieu Amalric) is interrupted by Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a tall blond who at first appears ditzy and unprepared, practically begging him to let her audition even though she isn’t on the casting sheet, then slowly taking charge as she reveals an intimate knowledge not only of his script but of stagecraft as well. An at-first flummoxed Thomas becomes more and more intrigued as Vanda performs the role of Wanda von Dunayev and he reads the part of Severin von Kushemski, their actor-director relationship intertwining with that of the characters’ dangerous and erotic attraction.
Ives’s English-language play, which earned Nina Arianda a Tony for Best Actress, was set in an office, but Polanski, who cowrote the screenplay with Ives, has moved this French version to an old theater (the Théâtre Récamier in Paris, rebuilt by designer Jean Rabasse) where a musical production of John Ford’s Stagecoach has recently taken place, with some of the props still onstage, including a rather phallic (and prickly) cactus. Polanski has masterfully used the machinations of cinema to expand on the play while also remaining true to its single setting. One of the world’s finest actors, Amalric, who looks more than a little like a younger Polanski, is spectacular as the pretentious Thomas, his expression-filled eyes and herky-jerky motion defining the evolution of his character’s fascination with Vanda, while Seigner, who is Polanski’s wife, is a dynamo of breathless erotic power and energy, seamlessly weaving in and out of different aspects of Vanda. Venus in Fur was shot in chronological order with one camera by cinematographer Paweł Edelman, who has photographed Polanski’s last five feature films, making it feel like the viewer is onstage, experiencing the events in real time. Alexandre Desplat’s complex, gorgeous score is a character unto itself, beginning with the outdoor establishing shot of the theater. The film also contains elements that recall such previous Polanski works as The Tenant, Bitter Moon, Tess, and The Fearless Vampire Killers, placing it firmly within his impressive canon. Polanski was handed Ives’s script at Cannes in 2012, and this screen version was then shown at Cannes for the 2013 festival, a whirlwind production that is echoed in Seigner’s performance; perhaps what’s most amazing is that it is only now finally getting its official U.S. theatrical release, beginning June 20 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza.