With tongue buried deep within his cheek and no doubt a certain glee in exploring the treacherous director-actor relationship that has naturally been the cornerstone of his long and storied career, director (and sometimes actor) Roman Polanski delivers a soupçon of entertaining insouciance in “Venus in Fur.”
A word of caution though: For all the mischievous kinkiness and psychosexual mind games at work here, take very little of it seriously. One can almost hear the director stifling his giggles behind the camera as he shows an auditioning actress turn the tables ever so stealthily on a pompous playwright and neophyte director in an otherwise empty Paris theater.
As if that isn’t enough of a giggle, then behold his cast of two: Mathieu Amalric, who bears a startling resemblance to the younger Polanski, playing opposite Emmanuelle Seigner, the director’s wife. (This is also an exploration of misogyny, which some critics insist on reading as a mea culpa on Polanski’s part but I’m not buying it.)
The film is a French adaptation of David Ives’ Broadway hit of the same name, which originally debuted off-Broadway in 2010 and transferred uptown the following season. The film itself (adapted by Polanski and the playwright) premiered at 2013 Cannes so it’s taken a while to bring it Stateside for whatever reason.
It is a crowd pleaser but, remember, that crowd in the U.S. is a highly limited niche of sophisticated urban moviegoers who mostly shun the multiplexes especially this time of year.
The teasing pas de deux is a negotiation of gender roles that plays with the inherent sado-masochism within the director-actor dynamic as well as a meditation on the objectification of women in entertainment, a feminist rebuke and emasculation. Again this is all lightly observed and playfully conveyed.
Our playwright Thomas Novachek (Amalric) has adapted the 1870 Austrian novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who of course donated his name, or at least half of it, to the lexicon of psychosexual terminology.
It’s late in a day of frustration as auditions have gone poorly for the directing novice. (He hasn’t liked what other directors have done to his plays.) The film opens with Pawel Edelman’s camera gliding down the tree-lined center of an ominously empty Paris boulevard on a rainy, overcast early evening.
As Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful though slightly threatening carnivalesque music hints at deceptions to come, the camera takes a sharp right turn into an aging theater with the “h” missing from its weathered facade.
The camera glides through front doors that magically swing open, through opening lobby doors and then into the auditorium where Thomas rants into his mobile phone to his fiancé (you later learn) about his rotten day.
Observing but unseen by the director is a blowzy actress who has arrived late and without an appointment. Bedraggled from the rain and an unpleasant encounter on the Métro, she dresses like a slut and wears a dog collar for the role of a dominatrix. She carries purses and bags from which she will later pull costumes and even a highly unauthorized version of the complete play.
Where did she get that? Who on earth is she?
She pretends to have mixed up the play’s name with the Velvet Underground song and to have only casually glanced at the script. Yet when she plays opposite Thomas — for there is no one else to read with her —she is word perfect. And she nails all the grace and allure of the 19th-century countess.
More surprises: She seems very familiar with the source material yet unlike Thomas, who considers the novella a seminal work in Western literature, she calls it S&M porn — with a touch of child abuse. This sends him into a frenzy and allows Polanski to have fun with critical deep-thinkers who take nothing at face value.
This audition takes place on a stage empty save for set and prop remnants from a previous theatrical atrocity, a Belgian musical based on John Ford’s “Stagecoach!”
Which accounts for the unsubtle phallic monument of a giant cactus that dominates the stage and soon figures in the improvised staging as actress and director pretty much go through the entire play.
Slowly the movie moves from realistic to surrealistic as tables turn and turn again and a sexual cat-and-mouse game ensues. This actress from nowhere points to subtexts within Thomas’ play he seems never to have noticed and keeps slipping from character to character — the anxious, gum-chewing actress, the sophisticated 19th-century lady and, more alarmingly, deities from theater, Venus, Aphrodite and even Greek goddesses who torment men at their (painful) pleasure.
Eventually she has him switch roles entirely so he can play the dominant countess and she the subservient bookish aristocrat. It’s a delicious slight-of-hand or better still what the French call a coup de théâtre.
Polanski’s two extraordinary actors keep things lively from moment to moment. Yet the film can’t help falling into a doldrums a little after the midpoint when the repetitive nature of the show sinks in. But the movie gathers its forces for a socko ending that ties everything up in a neat piece of wish-fulfilling bondage.
Plus a final wink to the audience that everyone is having a bit of fun with pretentious theater and those who insist upon reading far too much into superficial entertainment.
Desplat’s witty score comments so often on the proceedings that it becomes almost a third character in the movie. The film composer is a prolific phenomenon. (At L.A. Film Critics award-voting meetings we often have to choose from among several fabulous Desplat scores in a given year!) “Venus in Fur” is one of his very best.
This goes as well for frequent Polanski collaborator Edelman, who shows considerable resourcefulness in finding new areas and atmospheric lighting around the stage, its wings and corridors and the auditorium of an aging theater lovingly created by designer Jean Rabasse.
Opens: June 20 New York, July 4, 2014 Los Angeles (Sundance Selects)
Production companies: RP Productions, Monolith Films in association with Manon 3, Mars Films
Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriter: David Ives, Roman Polanski
Based on the play by: David Ives
French translation by: Abel Gerschenfeld
Producers: Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Jean Rabasse
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Dinah Colin
Editors: Margot Meynier, Hervé de Luze
No rating, 96 minutes.