Venus in Fur is, to put it plainly, a trifle. A trifle is hardly the worst thing a film could be, but for a critically-acclaimed outing from an Oscar-winning director, I expected a little more. But let’s break down the Rotten Tomatoes consensus on the film. “Provocative, funny, and brilliantly acted, Venus in Fur finds Roman Polanski in top late-period form.” Well, it’s a little provocative, I guess. There are a few chuckles to be had. The acting is good (“brilliant” is going a little far, though). “Top late-period form”? I mean, it’s about as good as The Ghost Writer (I’m sorry, that final twist was dumb), but it’s not even remotely as good as The Pianist.
It has its moments, but the ending ultimately reveals its lack of substance.
Paris. A rainy afternoon. An actress, Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives late to an audition for a play based on Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Fur. The only person present is the director, Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric), who is also the adapter of the script. Vanda pleads with Thomas to audition her, and he agrees, reading the role of the novel’s protagonist, Severin; Vanda plays Vanda, who discovers Severin’s taste for sexual humiliation (rooted in an incident in his youth when he was beaten). Severin eventually signs a contract making him Vanda’s slave for a year, and she decides he will pose as her servant, to increase his humiliation.
As Vanda and Thomas read, she displays an intimate familiarity with the material (in contrast to her initial professed ignorance), and she proves to be well-prepared for the occasion, with a period dress for herself, a smoking jacket and servant’s vest for Thomas, and a knowledge of stage lighting which allows her to set the scene properly, despite the sparse materials (a couch and a few set pieces from a musical version of Stagecoach). And her relationship with Thomas begins to mirror that of Vanda and Severin, as the balance of power tips her way.
The critics, as noted above, felt Venus was provocative–and, as noted above, I was not so convinced. And thinking back on it, I think the film all but actively falls flat as a work of provocation, because the object of its satire–or, if you prefer, its withering eye–is so vague? Is it attacking Sacher-Masoch’s book? Vanda argues that the book is misogynistic, yet is she speaking for David Ives (who wrote the play), or even Polanski? Is the book really so great a part of the canon as to require being taken down a peg? (I’m thinking the answer is no; it seems like a book which is more known of than actively read.)
Is the film making a commentary on gender roles? It does succeed to a degree here. Near the end of the story, Vanda has Thomas take her “fur” (really a scarf), apply some lipstick, and assume the role of the novel’s Vanda. It’s an effective little bit of gender-reversal, and even if it doesn’t really say anything, it at least sticks it the memory. But rather than capitalize on this moment, the film takes a turn for the ridiculous. Vanda ties Thomas up, berating him for his sexist nature and accusing him of trying to manipulate her to his own ends (she also claims to have been following him as a private detective hired by his fiancée, which may or may not be true). She then leaves, and had the film ended there, it might have been all right. But then she returns, draped in a real fur, speaking as Venus, and does a strange dance (complete with over-the-top “grotesque” faces), before leaving Thomas, tied up, as a Biblical verse repeated in the novel is shown, describing a man who is “delivered into the hands of a woman”. The end.
Whatever the film (or the play–I’ve never seen or read the play, so I don’t know) thought it was doing in this final scene, it doesn’t work. You can call it pretentious, you can call it silly, you can call it a cop-out…whatever it is, it doesn’t work. It brings to mind nothing so much as these lines from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore:
ROBIN: How would it be, do you think, were I to lure him here with cunning wile–bind him with good stout rope to yonder post–and then, by making hideous faces at him, curdle the heart-blood in his arteries, and freeze the very marrow in his bones? How say you, Adam, is not the scheme well planned?
ADAM: It would be simply rude–nothing more.
This is such an accurate commentary on the scene it’s almost not funny.
Up until this point, though, it’s generally amusing and entertaining, with some nice moments of meta-theatricality and a few promising nudges at the nature of masochism. It’s not a great play, but it’s an enjoyable one (I’m not an expert on Ives, but my experience with his work suggests he’s a better idea-man than storyteller). So as hard as I’ve been on it, there’s a reason I still gave it ***. If the ending hadn’t fizzled so, it might have been a low-level ***½–but here we are.
As a true two-header, the strength of the acting is paramount, and by and large, Seigner and Amalric do extremely well. Although Seigner has received almost unanimous raves for her work, I am not unreservedly taken with her performance. No doubt she’s very good–a big part of the role is to be a force of erotic nature (she spends much of her screen-time wearing fishnets and a black leather corset), and Seigner is often quite magnetic. But Vanda, as written, is enigmatic to the point of vagueness; is she a literal manifestation a Venus? The private detective she claims to be? A Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl? We never really know. And I’m not sure Seigner knew, either.
At the start of the film, before the “audition” commences, Vanda is portrayed as disorganized, frantic–a hot mess. And in these moments, Seigner’s a little too broad, a little too goofy. Granted, this is partly to set up the shock of her sudden total absorption into the role of Vanda the dominatrix–it certainly startles Thomas–but it still feels contrived. And some of the moments throughout, where she lapses from performative to interpretive or interrogative, also ring just a bit false. She still does quite a good job–and perhaps a little more familiarity with the source material would help me appreciate her work more–but it’s not an unconditional triumph.
Amalric, on the other hand, is quite spot-on. Other critics have mentioned how, with his longish hair and fidgety attitude, he resembles a younger Polanski (which makes a moment where he grouses about the modern societal attitude towards child abuse more than a little off-putting–and I’m not the only one to notice that, either); in any event, he arguably has the real character arc of the piece, and is never less than believable: from the harried chain-smoker at the start, to the enthusiastic auditioner, to the image of his own protagonist, and finally to an assumption of another role and gender entirely…Amalric never falls into absurdity or undue camp here, and while he won’t make my top 5 or anything, I do think he did a fine job.
Polanski’s direction is solid–hardly the best of his career, but for a two-character, basically one-set film, he keeps things moving and doesn’t throw in any gimmicks or unnecessary dazzle, yet keeps it compelling. Pawel Edelman’s cinematography is good, the sets (by Bruno Via and Philippe Cord’homme) are precisely what they ought to be, as are Denise Diallo’s costumes.
Arguably the best facet of the film is Alexandre Desplat’s music, a witty, sensuous little soundtrack that enhances the themes and atmosphere of the film perfectly. (I really wish I knew more about music; I cannot write about it with much complexity.) Suffice to say, Desplat is well overdue for an Oscar, and with his work this year on The Monuments Men, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, The Imitation Game, and Unbroken on top of this, maybe he’ll finally win?
If you’re set on going to see Venus in Fur, expect a kinky trifle with some good acting and a weird ending. Don’t go expecting a return to form or anything like that, and you’ll probably be satisfied. Or satisfied enough.