Thursday, August 28, 2014

Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

Roman Polanski on the set with actor Mathieu Amalric

Playwright David Ives (L-R), Emmanuelle Seigner, and Roman Polanski

VENUS IN FUR (La Vénus à la fourrure)           B           
France  Poland  (96 mi)  2013  ‘Scope d:  Roman Polanski      Mars Distribution [France]

No man is worthy of dominating a goddess.  He’s only worthy of being subjugated by her.

Consider this part of Polanski’s current fascination with the modern stage, initially seen in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994), but more recently coming on the heels of the claustrophobic, single-room setting of Carnage (2011), which began when the director himself was confined to four walls while under house arrest in Switzerland after his 2009 arrest and subsequent release several months later, as Switzerland would not extradite him to the United States for decades-old sexual assault charges stemming from March 1977 (Roman Polanski sexual abuse case).  This film is more of a gift to his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, 33-years younger, perhaps a continuation of the sexual power dynamics they explored in the film BITTER MOON (1992), where their last work together was THE NINTH GATE (1999), where Seigner played a demented satanic seductress with the supernatural ability to float through the air.  Here she plays a more mundane role of a Parisian actress with a few surprising tricks up her sleeve, bringing with her a bottomless bag of costumes and props, as well as unique insights into the female mystique, where rarely has she been utilized to better effect.  The film is an adaptation of the 2010 David Ives Broadway play, which itself was adapted from the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom the term masochism originated, where he describes his own experiences as the submissive servant Severin being aroused sexually by dominant women wearing furs, willingly becoming their obedient slave following a childhood incident of being scolded and beaten on a bed of furs by his aunt while ogling servants watched approvingly.  Sacher-Masoch, a great-great uncle of Marianne Faithfull, took his pathology with him to the grave and died insane.  The two-person play about sexual domination has been transported from New York City to Paris, Polanski's first non-English language feature film in forty years, with Seigner playing the role of Vanda, an actress auditioning before the writer/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric).  Both previously worked together in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007), while coincidentally, Amalric’s mother was born in Poland to Jewish parents, raised in the same Polish village as Polanski’s family, making him the perfect stand-in for the director.  Both, by the way, share a certain mousy quality, where the idea of being sexually dominated makes perfect sense, where Polanski has been quoted as saying, “Normal love isn’t interesting.  I assure you that it’s incredibly boring.” 

While Polanski has insisted that Venus is a comedy about the vanity of directors doing auditions and the Sado-Masochistic dynamic of the director hiring and controlling actors, he also likes to arrange shots from the protagonist’s perspective and slowly pan around the room to points of interest as the character notices them, where the fun of the film is to imagine that every single word of the film is seen as a reflection of the director himself.  Polanski is a director that makes exquisite use of limited space, restricted here to the stage of an empty theater, where the cinematography by Pawel Edelman in the dark theater is elegant throughout, the first Polanski feature shot in digital, where it interestingly mixes in close-up glimpses of Renaissance paintings, specifically Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (854 × 1,024 pixels), as the painting was the inspiration for the protagonist Severin’s imagination in the 1870 novel.  It is this artistic interplay, a painting commenting upon literature, which impacts a modern era play while delving into the imaginations of the actress and the director as they read aloud passages from the play, easily losing themselves in the original source material where the line between fiction and reality is continually blurred.  The film wraps itself around the genteel nature of European civilization, which relies upon centuries of cultural tradition, where a work like this is considered scandalous, flying in the face of the highest artistic standards, while continually looking down upon these two lowly subjects as the goddess Venus would from her heavenly perch, offering her own commentary on all that is considered beautiful as the mythological embodiment of sex, love, beauty, enticement, seduction, and persuasive female charm.  Opening on the director Thomas pacing the floor in an agitated state of disbelief, as he is the last person left in an empty theater after a day of auditions went badly, where he’s angry that no one seems to understand the lofty ambitions of his steamy, sex-charged period piece, which is obviously a highly personal labor of love, though filtered through the prism of his own arrogance.  Just as he is complaining on his cell phone that he can’t find a woman with both the intellect and sex appeal for the role, Vanda enters the theater like a gust of wind pushed her in, where she is drenched from head to toe, wearing a dog collar around her neck and chewing gum, throwing in the occasional slang, sounding more like someone who was accidentally pushed off the public transit system for being an annoyance.  Unable to take no for an answer, she finagles her way into an audition even though her name is not on the director’s list, reading the lines of the sultry dominatrix Vanda (coincidentally sharing the same name) while Thomas assumes the part of Severin. 

Though visibly annoyed that she is clearly wasting his time, his scorn turns to shock the instant she starts reading her lines, literally transforming herself before his befuddled eyes into this mystifying, larger-than-life creature of feminine guile and beauty.  In utter amazement, he asks her to read on, where she continually entices her way into his fertile imagination before abruptly breaking character, offering her own modern contextualization to the part, where the two argue and jostle for position, each attempting to gain the upper hand as they negotiate their own power dynamic between them.  Vanda is a master of surprise, pulling a 19th century smoking jacket out of her bag for him to wear along with several of her own vintage costumes, where her familiarity not only with the script but the intimacies of the director’s personal life simply catches him off guard, where she seems to have an intuitive knowledge of all his carefully guarded secrets, many of which are expressed in the play they are rehearsing.  When Vanda suggests the play is about child abuse, as it all springs from the imagination of that whipped child wrapped in furs, one can’t help but think of Polanski’s own criminal past, where Thomas leaps to his own defense, “What the fuck does the maltreatment of children have to do with this story?”  One does have to wonder why Polanski chose to adapt this particular story, resurrecting long ago thought insignificant notions of sexual correctness into the political realm, where Thomas continues to vent his anger, “Stereotypes!  What are you going to throw at me next?  Racism, sexism, class struggle?”  Vanda tactically responds with a line from the play, “Well you’re certainly unique, Herr Kushemski,” flattering his ego and bringing them both back into character.  This use of sexual innuendo and sly manipulation of character is at the heart of the film, where never far from the back of your mind is the fact that Polanski *is* a convicted sex offender, also known for his egotistical and tyrannical behavior, as well as his personal magnetism and charm, yet he’s the one pulling the strings here, where the probing conversations between Thomas and Vanda are indistinguishable from the characters they are playing onstage.  Vanda intriguingly points out that in this 19th century era, people didn’t so easily engage in sex, all they had was conversation, where the act of seduction was expressed through words.  This becomes the raison d’etre for the film, where the characters continually mask their real intention, which is sexual dominance or submission, expressed through a continuously interweaving thread of conversational fantasy and reality, beautifully captured in the sublime eloquence of the musical score by Alexandre Desplat.  In the end, the film can’t escape its campy feel, despite the vigilance of the extraordinary performances, where its modern social relevance may be lost on the viewer.  While the 19th century setting bears some resemblance to the sense of lavish refinement and gorgeous interior decors of Bertrand Bonello’s equally artistic yet more insightful film, House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide – souvenirs de la maison close) (2011), Polanski’s fantasy-tinged music box miniature, like dancing porcelain dolls, barely skims the surface of the sexual humiliation and degradation that women were actually forced to endure in that era, much of which still lingers into the present.   

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