Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur opens and closes with long, sinuous dolly shots, on-rails moments which feel both magically cinematic and self-consciously silly. Like the proudly low-rent special effects of Alain Resnais’s late films, these paired movements—one a zooming POV shot in which the camera whisks its way into a darkened Parisian theater, doors swinging open before it, the other the same shot in reverse—establish the overt artificiality of a world which, despite a surface similarity to our own, will not be beholden to the same rules of conduct and decorum. The film’s sole setting, the theater becomes a performative location in more ways than one, an internalized space within which the act of creation is manifested as a confused, circling process of communion and detachment. After years of respectable filmmaking, it’s refreshing to witness a reinvigorated Polanski willing to once again delve deep into seedy psychodrama.
In this case it’s Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), an overtaxed first-time theater director recovering from a day of dreadful auditions. Complaining to his wife on the phone, he’s interrupted by a late-arriving actress who seems like yet another annoyance, embodying all the entitled-actor qualities about which he’d just been griping. Yet while she initially appears rude, coarse, and clueless, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) is also oddly suited for the lead in an adaptation of Leopold Van Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, down to sharing the character’s name and sporting a full bondage outfit, complete with studded dog collar. Thomas ends up impressed with Vanda’s dedication to the role, a sentiment which grows into obsession after she coerces him into an audition, the quick reading transforming into a protracted two-person performance.
The moment that Thomas and Vanda pick up their scripts, Venus in Fur transforms from a straightforward clash of personalities to a manic psychosexual tête-à-tête. Itself adapted from David Ives’s similarly structured play, the film builds on its source material, joining text and subtext in the same visual sphere, wiping out any easily conceivable border between the two. As the sense of performance deepens, the two principals become indistinguishable from the characters they’re representing, and vice versa, and Polanski reflects that assimilation by turning the film into an inter-textual hall of mirrors. Exhibiting a spryness that seemed to have vanished from his repertoire, he transforms the bare stage into a classic Polanski space, in which a crisis of identity upends traditional power structures, causing constructs like gender, class, and identity to lose all functional meaning.
The spectacle of people consumed by the supposedly fictional characters they’re portraying may not be the most original concept, but it’s leaps and bounds beyond the rote reproduction of Carnage, reflecting similar simmering social tensions in a more twistedly cinematic context. Where that film was burdened with prestige strictures (an A-list cast, an internationally successful play), the interpretation here is far looser, gearing Ives’s source material toward maximum madness. Departing from that film’s static, often pedestrian setups, here Polanski goes wild, multiplying the confusion with weird compositions as these two clashing personalities repeatedly fuse and break apart. This culminates with a bit of gonzo stagecraft involving Thomas strapped to a giant cactus, a garish phallic symbol repurposed from a comedic stage remake of John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s the sort of surreal touch that pushed the director’s early work toward such a specific nexus of humor and horror, a sense that fleetingly returns here, in a film that feels maniacally inspired by the joys of perversity.