Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur premiered at Cannes in 2013, and it’s only just now, one full year on, that it’s winding its way out of France to theaters in the UK and, next month, the States. It is, as Nick Schager explains in the Voice, “an adaptation of David Ives’ 2010 Tony Award-winning play about tension that grows between a playwright and an auditioning actress. Relocating the action from NYC to Paris, Polanski stages the nightlong rehearsal between author/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) and mysterious Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) with a fluidity and grace that captures, from moment to moment, the characters’ shifts in relationship, with Thomas’s initial sexist arrogance soon destabilized by the imposing Vanda’s transition from messy know-nothing to domineering sex kitten.”
“Venus in Fur opens and closes with long, sinuous dolly shots, on-rails moments which feel both magically cinematic and self-consciously silly,” writes Jesse Cataldo in Slant. “Like the proudly low-rent special effects of Alain Resnais‘s late films, these paired movements—one a zooming POV shot in which the camera whisks its way into a darkened Parisian theater, doors swinging open before it, the other the same shot in reverse—establish the overt artificiality of a world which, despite a surface similarity to our own, will not be beholden to the same rules of conduct and decorum. The film’s sole setting, the theater becomes a performative location in more ways than one, an internalized space within which the act of creation is manifested as a confused, circling process of communion and detachment. After years of respectable filmmaking, it’s refreshing to witness a reinvigorated Polanski willing to once again delve deep into seedy psychodrama.”
“Given that Seigner has been married to Polanski for 25 years and Amalric could easily pass for the director’s younger brother, one can’t help wondering if the sexual dynamic that develops on the screen, and is indeed the film’s raison d’être, might have something to do with daily life chez Polanski,” suggests Amy Taubin in Film Comment. “Since the film is fiction, and therefore evidence of nothing outside itself, one feels guilty for even allowing the thought to cross one’s mind. And yet the casting pushes the fantasy in our faces, much as Vanda pushes herself on Thomas, hovering above him so that her voluptuous breasts, spilling out of her décolletage, overwhelm his field of vision.”
“Polanski’s son Elvis played Amalric’s fictional younger self in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007),” notes Roger Clarke in Sight & Sound. “On the cast list of that film was also… Seigner, whom Polanski met through his casting director Dominique Besnehard more than 25 years ago in pre-production for Pirates (1986). But Pirates is just about the only film in the Polanski canon not referenced by Venus in Fur, which seems to involve nods to The Tenant (1976) in particular, but also Cul-de-Sac (1966), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Tess (1979), Bitter Moon (1992) and Death and the Maiden (1994). That said, this is Polanski’s most simple and unalloyed film, a joyous two-hander and as near to a comedy as Polanski has ever been—bearing in mind his customary attraction to discomfort, panic and a nagging imminence of the sinister.”
“Amalric was always going to be a safe pair of hands in a role like this, though it’s Seigner who gives the material a satisfying, red-light glow,” writes David Jenkins in Little White Lies. “She manages to imbue a sense of humanity and history into a character who may possibly be a figment of this deviant director’s imagination.”
In the Critic’s Notebook, Martin Tsai notes that Ives’s play is “itself is a meta-reimagining (think Charlie Kaufman) of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs that famously spawned the term masochism” and suggests that Polanski may have been “more drawn to Mr. Ives’s quasi-feminist rationalization of sexual fetish than Sacher-Masoch’s explanation of it as mastery over repressed feelings, and somehow sees parallels between the play and his own sexual felony. However subliminal and unintentional this might be, the projection is hardly excusable. Although the play suggests both slave and master are equally culpable, that relationship is at least consensual.”
Regardless, “Sacher-Masoch’s book arrives torn, tattered and transmuted—Pirandellian but still recognizable—in this mischievous movie brainstorm,” writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times.
Updates, 6/2: Venus in Fur “sent me back to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella with every intention of writing a stern, authoritative appraisal,” writes Nicholas Blincoe. “Inevitably, I was soon playing around with Google Maps as I plotted a journey from Lviv, the birthplace of Sacher-Masoch; through Nowy Sacz, home to Isidor Isaak Sadger, the psychiatrist who coined the term sadomasochist; to Krakow, the city where Roman Polanski was born. The entire trip would take no more than four hours by car, five tops, through the old kingdom of Galicia, now western Ukraine and Poland…. When Seigner’s Wanda forces Almaric’s Thomas to wear women’s clothes at the end of Venus in Fur, it is hard not to wonder if this is another example of both disguised memoirs and masochistic ruse. Could Polanski have staged the entire production for this one moment?”
Also in the Guardian, Jonathan Romney: “Of all Polanski’s latter-day chamber pieces (following Death and the Maiden and Carnage), this is the liveliest: taut, witty and, while very much a male film, nevertheless a sly dismantling of the sexual politics of performance.”
Updates, 6/20: “Is it about sex or power? Art or life?” asks the New York Times‘ A. O. Scott. “What is beyond dispute is the sheer exuberant virtuosity Ms. Seigner and Mr. Amalric bring to the material. He is one of the most reliable—and also one of the least predictable—embodiments of Gallic intellectualism under duress. She is something else entirely: a whirlwind of ferocious intelligence and canny instinct, elusive and magnetic. And she settles the question of what Venus in Fur is really about. It’s about acting and the voyeuristic delight, sensual and cerebral in equal measure, that comes from watching it happen.”
New York‘s David Edelstein disagrees, but first, to back up a bit: “The play is best enjoyed as a goof on both feminist deconstruction and the male artist’s masochistic fantasies. It’s exhilarating proof, like much of Ives’s work, that parody can rise to the level of art…. In Polanski’s hands, Venus in Fur holds the screen, but the casting dims the dazzle. Seigner works hard to earn the pedestal that is Vanda, which is the rub: Fine as she is, you do see her sweat…. Amalric is more convincing, but too much of a hangdog. The erotic pas de deux I saw onstage becomes two ill-matched actors in separate spheres.”
Slate‘s Dana Stevens suggests that “before you conclude that this playfully self-referential adaptation must be little more than a misogynistic act of retroactive self-justification, give Venus in Fur a chance.” It’s “a sharp, sexy comedy… performed by two superb and superbly in-tune actors, and directed with a sure hand by a filmmaker who’s clearly not cowed by the challenge of blowing up a two-person chamber piece for the screen.”
“The big question with Venus in Fur is whether all these psycho-sexual head-games—and all the conversations about literature, obsession, and gender—ever arrive anywhere particularly surprising or insightful.” For Noel Murray at the Dissolve, here’s “about the extent of what Venus in Fur has to say: Sometimes an artist needs to get his ass kicked. But if anyone can make a stock comeuppance feel like divine justice, it’s Seigner.”
“Not many filmed plays have stuck closely to the physical constraints of their stage source yet still produced a thoroughly cinematic experience,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “Polanski, one of the most visually inventive yet economical directors in film history, shoots everything in a boringly plain way here. The repetitive shot/reverse shot pattern seems more interested in capturing the acting than commenting on, amplifying or even presenting it.”
“Even as Venus in Fur talks out its ideas, you can still make out the curvy shape of eroticism beneath its surface; Polanski, instead of stressing its themes, traces them out with a free and flowing hand.” The Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek: “He takes Venus in Fur about as seriously as it ought to be taken. Instead of fanning the flames, he seems perfectly happy just to watch the sparks fly.”
“Like Carnage, it’s a bit of a minor lark until a deliciously grotesque finale pushes it into the realm of such kinkily profound Polanski films as Cul-de-sac (1966) and The Tenant (1976),” writes Keith Uhlich. “By that point, you can’t help but submit to the perversity.” Also in Time Out New York, Joshua Rothkopf interviews Seigner; so, too, does Nigel M. Smith for Indiewire.
“Venus in Fur works where the facile Carnage largely didn’t because the play itself is something of a delight,” writes the AV Club‘s A. A. Dowd. For Buzzfeed‘s Alison Willmore, “Venus in Fur stages a rebellion that has more to say about power than any BDSM scenario, classic or porno.”
Updates, 6/26: For the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, Polanski “brightens the faded material, and conjures his most graceful work in years, guiding his camera in a dance around the confined arena and permitting his actors—just the two of them—to duck so freely in and out of character that the wall between the real and the imagined feels no thicker than stretched silk.”
Noel Vera: “Hitchcock directs your attention to this or that detail, points out the relationship between two entirely disparate objects, distends time and magnifies tension to an unbearable degree; his camerawork, more manipulative than anything, is born out of a need for precision and relentless visual storytelling logic. Polanski is capable of this when needed (I’m thinking of the camera following from a point slightly above Rosemary Wodehouse’s shoulder as she enters her neighbors’ apartment, in the climactic scene of Rosemary’s Baby) but the overall impression is of a silky seductive style, meant to relax you and allow you to luxuriate in the velvet gorgeousness of it all–until he delivers the horrors, in which case you do anything except relax.”
“Lighthearted as it is, Venus in Fur has the rare effect of filtering the viewer’s life through its own extreme lens,” writes Judy Berman at Flavorwire. “Walk out of the cinema after seeing the film (or, preferably, the theater after seeing the play), and the subtle discourse of power that runs through your every relationship—your every conversation, even—may haunt you for days. You see it in a lovers’ quarrel, sure, but also in meetings at the office, and on the phone with family. And just like in the movie, it becomes difficult to tell who is freer or more powerful: the apparently dominant figure, who’s nominally in control but is weighed down by responsibility, or the submissive one, whose dependency is in itself a kind of liberation.”
“Is Roman Polanski the greatest living filmmaker?” asks Alex Ross Perry at the Talkhouse Film. “On any given day, the argument could be made and effortlessly backed up. Polanski is as good as we’ve got, no question.”
Updates, 7/10: “Polanski has fashioned a cheeky, very naughty bit of self-mockery about the comeuppance of a pompous artist trying to gussy up his baser instincts with a facade of highbrow culture,” writes Sean Burns.
“Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose pregnant wife was murdered as part of a bloody spectacle, has both known and caused more trauma than any person should,” writes Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper. “What’s striking, and discomfiting, about Venus is how fluidly the directors inhabit the role of both perpetrator and victim, and how neither character stays one or the other for long.”
“As tempting as it is to read autobiographical intention into these decisions,” writes Robert Horton for the Seattle Weekly. “I think it’s probably wise to take them as sardonic jokes. It’s much better to simply watch the French-language Venus in Fur as an extended and often hilarious riff on power plays and erotic gamesmanship, both of which are offered here in ripe-flowering abundance.”
“There’s none of the sweaty, life-and-death urgency of Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown or The Pianist in the stagey posturing, just two actors running through a drill,” finds Kelly Vance in the East Bay Express. “It’s a momentarily captivating drill, but neither Ives’ play nor Polanski’s screenplay (written with the playwright) have much blood in their veins.”
Both Angeline Rodriguez and Tien-Tien L. Jong review Venus in Fur at EatDrinkFilms.