Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) runs into this Parisian theatre out of the pouring rain and thunderstorm, and straight into the auditorium, where there is only one person to be seen, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), the writer and director of the play she is about to audition for. Or that's her plan but she sees he is ranting on the phone to someone about the trouble he has been having finding someone for the lead role, nobody suits and they all arrive dressed inappropriately for a supposedly sexually charged production. It is his own adaption of the book Venus in Fur, the work that sadomasochism got named after, which he regards as a piece of art having lots to say about the gender divide. But Vanda has other ideas...
Venus in Fur was also one of director Roman Polanski's filmed plays largely taking place in a single location, following on from the likes of Death and the Maiden or Carnage, yet also harking back to his feature debut Knife in the Water which took place on a boat, between three characters. There were not even that here, as his wife Seigner and Almaric, who apparently was cast because of his resemblance to the filmmaker, carried the whole drama from start to finish with no interruptions from any other character. The whole movie, aside from a little exterior business at the beginning and the end, was situated in the same theatre, and most of that on the stage area as they acted out Thomas's play.
And analysed it as well, making this one of those navel-gazing yarns that seek to uncover some essential truth about its subject by picking it apart verbally, like a late night conversation that seems to be heading for the heart of the sun, but is actually settling into an orbit. There were those who criticised Seigner's casting by Polanski, as had been the case in one of their previous collaborations, as if she were getting preferential treatment when the part in David Ives' original play was intended for an actress half her age, but for one thing it's not as if she showed up exclusively in her husband's work, she did other projects as well, and for another she was accomplished enough to claim the part for herself.
Fair enough, it would have been unusual for this Vanda to have been in with a shot of securing the lead in Thomas's production, but Seigner convinced us when her character began to act and we thought, yes, we can see how someone with more experience could nail this performance which pretentiously is intended to make grand statements about all women and the power they hold over men. Whether you agreed that Ives, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski, was right in his observations was a different matter as this was essentially one of those turning of the tables stories where roles were reversed, just as the source book placed a supposedly helpless female in the driving seat when she had the opportunity to exert her influence over a male who traditionally would be pulling the strings.
Or wielding the whips, for that matter, as author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was credited with introducing kinky sexual relationships into the mainstream, or as far as they could go over the course of centuries, though they did tend to be treated as a joke and that's the way they came across here, as was not quite certain of the validity of Ives' conclusions. Not that it was a rip-roaring comedy, though there were some laughs as the forceful Vanda proves too much real woman for Thomas's intellectualising that places fictional women as the ideal way to examine the purpose and impulse of the genuine article. Followers of Polanski's private life would hear alarm bells, too, when child abuse was raised as a topic. As Vanda hints she may be more than she is letting on, the drama drew up to its climax which after holding your attention, perhaps against expectations (the two performers were very effective, whether you agreed with the path the themes were taking or not), but stumbled in its last five minutes which were simply daft and smacked of somebody’s notion of revenge fantasies. Until then, interesting enough. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.