Let's, for a moment, ignore the reputation of Roman Polanski as an agent provocateur, a controversial artist that fell foul of public opinion and a savage, provocative satirist whose work has nearly always been a refracted mirror of his own autobiography. Even if you had no idea about who he is and what he has done, you would certainly be struck by the effortlessly masterful tone of his adaptation of David Ives' theatrical riff on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs. A huis-clos for two actors in a single setting, in lesser hands this multi-tiered exploration of lust and power would be a stilted piece of filmed theatre; in Mr. Polanski's, it's a dazzlingly playful example of how to make an engaging, engrossing, highly cinematic film that wears its theatrical origin lightly.

     The premise of Mr. Ives' play is a hall of mirrors expanded from Sacher-Masoch's book: in a Parisian theatre, a director (Mathieu Amalric) is auditioning for a stage adaptation of Venus in Furs, and an actress (Emannuelle Seigner) shows up late. Cajoling the director into staying late to allow her a shot at the role of Vanda, she slowly reveals a remarkable understanding of the character that allows the book's games of lust and power to become flesh right there on stage. There are many suggestions as to where Vanda, as she calls herself, comes from: is she maybe a supernatural presence, or merely a prankster taking an elaborate gag too far? In truth, though, these are merely hints, and tantalizing ones at that, for what is in effect the script's central symbolism: an eternal battle of the sexes being fought yet again between Vanda and Thomas, the director, a re-enacting of the dances of power and control between consenting adults of opposite sexes.

     This is the point where a knowledge of Mr. Polanski's previous work kicks in: interspersed throughout the increasingly intense back-and-forth between book, play and reality, underlining the director's ease at turning theatre into cinema, are blink-and-you'll-miss-it references to other films, suggesting that, as Carnage was in its own way, Venus in Fur is a look back and a settling of accounts with his own past. After all, Mr. Amalric, in a regal performance, is almost like a physical double of Mr. Polanski in the role of the director/demiurge, acting opposite his director's own wife, Ms. Seigner, in a career-best performance. The film's ambiguity about lust, desire, sex, punishment, love, seems to mirror knowingly all of the controversies that have chased Mr. Polanski over the years. And with each new level of ambiguity the text explores, the richer and darker the film becomes, to the point of mutating into a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of references that feeds not only on the past of its makers but also on the viewer's response and relationship with the public personas of all involved.

     There is, admittedly, nothing really new about Venus in Fur's tale or structure; there doesn't need to be when a master filmmaker is at the controls. Just a breathtaking moment of modern cinema.

Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: David Ives, Roman Polanski, from the play by Mr. Ives, Venus in Fur
Cinematography: Pawel Edelman  (colour)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Jean Rabasse
Costumes: Dinah Collin
Editors: Margot Meynier, Hervé de Luze
Producers: Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde  (RP Productions and Monolith Films in association with the Polish Film Institute, Manon 3 and Mars Films)
France/Poland, 2013, 96 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, November 7th 2013


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