Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur is a deceptively simple two-hander. Superficially, the film seems to unfold as a textbook study of role reversal (that staple of the psychodrama) in the tragicomic mode: Overweening director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) grudgingly auditions brash Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) for the title role in his upcoming adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, the decadent 19th-century novel about pleasure, pain, and submission from which psychologists derived the term masochism, only to discover that Vanda has come prepared for the part in ways Konstantin Stanislavski never even dreamed about. Look beyond these overtly theatrical surfaces, however, and you enter an ever-shifting hall of mirrors that reflects back in surprising fashion on both Polanski’s life and earlier films.
The confined setting of Venus in Fur, which takes place entirely within a cavernous theater’s rehearsal space, harkens back not only to the upper-middle-class apartments of Carnage, Polanski’s previous theatrical adaptation, but to the claustrophobic (head)spaces of the so-called “Apartment Trilogy” comprised of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant. Indeed, the moment in Venus in Fur when Vanda encourages Thomas to put on her heels and makeup vividly recalls the “enforced” emasculation of Polanski’s Trelkovsky in The Tenant, a comparison that’s rendered all the more fascinatingly complex given Amalric’s strong physical resemblance to the director.
Despite Thomas’s own vaunted opinion of himself, he keeps insisting to Vanda that he’s not the play’s writer, but merely its adapter, as though eschewing responsibility for the undeniably personal and emotionally intimate nature of the material. His asseveration would seem to raise certain fundamental questions about the process of adaptation since, of course, Venus in Fur is itself the cinematic adaptation of a play about a play that’s the adaptation of a novel. It also invites inquiries about where Polanski himself stands in relation to the material. Given Polanski’s knowingly self-reflexive approach, it should then come as no surprise that Vanda keeps prodding Thomas about just how much of himself he has inserted into his adaptation, particularly when it comes to the childhood memories of the male lead, Severin von Kusiemski, whose role Thomas has assumed in their read-through.
It’s here that Venus in Fur skirts dangerously close to the still-thorny matter of Polanski’s ongoing legal issues. When Vanda claims that the encounter between the young Severin and his much older aunt amounts to nothing less than child abuse, Thomas grows exasperated and indignant. “This isn’t sociology or anthropology!” he insists. “It’s art.” It would be wrongheadedness, in a work this crafty and multilayered, to simply assume Thomas stands as a clear-cut mouthpiece for Polanski, especially given the poetic justice meted out for him by Vanda in the end. Nonetheless, a question mark concerning the inextricable intermingling of personal and professional lingers over Venus in Fur.
What we can say is that Thomas deviates drastically from the ending of his source material. In the novel, Severin, abashed and degraded by his experiences, swears off masochism for good, ending the work with a fairly progressive plea for equal rights between the sexes. Thomas opts instead for punitive comeuppance wherein the slave again becomes the master. Vanda has seen through this Hegelian legerdemain already. “The more he submits, the more in control he is,” she complains early on. By erotically playing Thomas, she ultimately entices him to play her. The film ends with the feminized Thomas lashed to a risibly phallic cactus (“more pricks than kicks,” as Samuel Beckett would’ve observed) while Vanda invokes The Bacchae. Whether or not she’s about to tear him asunder, draw your own conclusions. In its final moments, Venus in Fur moves from arch theatricality to outright surrealism, which, after all, remains Polanski’s native soil in more senses than one.
MPI’s DVD presentation of Venus in Fur looks about as good as can be expected from anything short of a full-on 1080p Blu-ray transfer. The 2.40:1 Scope image is clean and mostly sharp overall, though there’s some inevitable softness during the shadow-laden later scenes. Alexandre Desplat’s incongruously jaunty score, which comes into play most strikingly during the film’s bravura bookended tracking shots, and ambient sound effects, like the intermittent bursts of portentously resounding thunder, register strongly in the Dolby surround mix.
MPI includes about 12 minutes of EPK-friendly excerpts from interviews with Roman Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric. The best of what’s here involves Amalric laying bare his approach to the role: He had to hide away his sexual attraction to Seigner and just go from there. "Which is what the character does too!" There’s also the theatrical trailer.
MPI dumps Roman Polanski’s perversely engrossing Venus in Fur onto DVD with a reasonably strong transfer, but precious little in the way of bonus features.