Roman Polanski is a man whose personal scandal seems to be better known than his own work, which is a pity, because Polanksi at his best is a genius film-maker. My personal favourites, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, are skilfully made psychological thrillers filled with an ominous atmosphere and a thick streak of black humour. However, at his worst, Polanksi can be very very dull, a case in point being the Johnny Depp-starring ‘The Ninth Gate’, a perfectly good alternative to anaesthesia. So entering any Polanski film is an uncertain experience.
However it would be hard to imagine any material better suited to Polanksi than Venus in Fur, based on a play adapted from the 1870 erotic novel which deals largely with sadomasochism. It seems to tick all the boxes of Polanski’s favourite themes: psycho-sexuality, insanity, a claustrophobic setting and cross-dressing. The story takes place in an old theatre where a director ( Matthieu Amalric) is looking to cast the female lead his in stage adaptation of ‘Venus in Furs’, and in walks Wanda ( Emmanuelle Seigner) who at first seems airheaded and brash, yet reads the part surprisingly well and gradually reveals to know far more about the source material than the theatre director originally gives her credit for. The audition stretches out over a night and becomes more and more intense, with the lines between play and reality begin to blur.
What’s initially striking about the film is how much the character Amalric plays looks like Polanski. The actor already resembles the director, and even his hairstyle is much like Polanski’s circa the Tenant. It’s unlikely this was just a coincidence, and it suggests that Polanski sees Amalric’s director as his stand-in. This is strengthened by the casting of Emmanuel Seigner, Polanski’s wife and regular collaborator (they’ve worked on three films together before) as the muse in the film. Polanski clearly sees this as a personal project, and with source material that has so much of his signature style, one would think that this would be the ultimate Polanksi films.
However the film is disappointingly dull. It would be easy to say that the reason it’s boring is because it has only two characters and it’s set in one room, in real time. However there have been great films which tackle both those limitations well. Before Sunset only featured two characters, while Buried was all set in a coffin, and both were gripping films. There’s no excuse for Polanski other than inferior storytelling, and the fact is the film becomes very repetitive very quickly.
Firstly the film is clearly aiming to be a character comedy, a clash between two disparate yet oddly similar characters, yet it’s never funny enough to be that. Secondly much of the dialogue is discussion between Amalric and Seigner over the novel ‘Venus in Furs’, about its meaning and the true intention of the author. Perhaps if you were a fan of, or at least familiar with, the novel this would be hugely enjoyable, but as someone who doesn’t know much about it, I felt oddly out of the loop, and the film does not manage to make me as interested in the book as the characters. It raises interesting themes such as dominance between men and women, and the swapping of roles, yet is vague in what it wants to say. Meanwhile the idea of an adaptation where ‘life imitates art’ is certainly not a new idea; we’ve seen it before in David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly and Michael Winterbottom’s excellent A Cock and Bull Story.
That’s not to say the performances aren’t great, because they are, and they both have great comic timing and inhabit their characters, and the transformations they undergo, believably. However, like a play, a film relies on both good performances and a good screenplay, and I can’t say it has the latter. Would it have worked better in its original play form? I’m not sure. But it does feel like a missed opportunity. In an age where 50 Shades of Grey is selling millions of copies, it would have been fun to see Polanski de-construct our perception of BDSM in a sharper funnier way.