Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas complains that no actress he's seen has what it takes to play the lead female character: a woman who enters into an agreement with her male counterpart to dominate him as her slave. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda bursts in, a whirlwind of erratic - and, it turns out, erotic - energy. At first she seems to embody everything Thomas has been lamenting. She is pushy, foul-mouthed, desperate and ill-prepared - or so it seems. When Thomas finally, reluctantly, agrees to let her try out for the part, he is stunned and captivated by her transformation. Not only is Vanda a perfect fit (even sharing the character's name), but she apparently has researched the role exhaustively, learned her lines by heart and even bought her own props. The likeness proves to be much more than skin-deep. As the extended "audition" builds momentum, Thomas moves from attraction to obsession until, with Vanda taking an ever more dominant role, the balance of power shifts completely.
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As the director of Chinatown
, The Pianist
, and Rosemary's Baby
, Roman Polanski has been behind the camera for some of the most important movies in the history of cinema. After many hugely ambitious productions, Polanski's last film, Carnage
, was a textbook study of minimalist filmmaking, set in a single apartment and consisting of only four characters. His newest film, Venus in Fur
, sees Polanski moving even further in the simplistic direction, with only two characters occupying a single room for the entire film.
Venus in Fur
stars Mathieu Amalric (The Grand Budapest Hotel
) as Thomas Novacheck, a writer-director who is holding auditions for his new play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs. Thomas has just finished for the day, and right as he is complaining over the phone about the lack of talent in the actresses which he has seen so far, a young woman named Vanda (played by Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, who also worked with Polanski on Frantic
and The Ninth Gate
) storms in. Vanda is not only late but has no appointment. All Thomas wants to do is go home, but she convinces him to let her read for the part anyway. His skepticism turns to excitement as Vanda seems to have a deep understanding of the character, even to the point of already having her lines memorized. As she recites her character's speeches, she insists that Thomas reads with her. The audition goes on, and Thomas finds himself strangely drawn to the mysterious woman who seems to know way too much about the play...and the director himself.
, the script for Venus in Fur
is based on a play; Polanski himself wrote the adaptation, basing his screenplay on the play of the same name by David Ives (The Hunted
). The story itself is treated very much like a play, with one simple location and just the two leads carrying the show - the narrative is very straightforward and one-directional. Cinematically, Polanski digs much deeper; it's not just a filmed play, but a complex and detailed movie full of shot variety and clever editing. The combination of the minimalist script and the complex shooting style makes Venus in Fur
an intriguing film, even if it is a little artsy.
It goes without saying that Venus in Fur
is a very character driven film. Vanda is wild and impetuous while Thomas is reserved and serious, and the combination of the two personalities breeds the type of tension and release that is both entertaining and aggravating. The audience's sympathies shift between the two characters, proving how complex both of them really are. The morality of the film is ambiguous in that the film gives the impression that Thomas deserves Vanda's smite and scorn, but she still comes off as a worse person than he does. Added to the fact that it is sometimes purposefully difficult to tell whether the characters are speaking from their hearts or reciting lines from the play, and the film can get confusing. However, it's confusing in the best possible way; it challenges the audience to come up with their own decisions and ideas. By the time the picture reaches its surreal ending - and the ending is very surreal - the viewer has an idea of what's going on, but it may be a different idea than the one formed by the person sitting next to them.
Venus in Fur
is not going to be for everyone. To recap; it's minimalistic, it's artistic, and it's a little abstract. And it's in French, which only adds to the potential for alienation. But, for those who like foreign art films directed by Roman Polanski, well, this one will hit the mark.
When the entirety of a film rests squarely on the shoulders of just two actors, those actors had better be good. Luckily for Roman Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric bring their A-game to Venus in Fur. The pair worked together previously in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and their familiarity and comfort with each other shows; they have great chemistry. As the film progresses, the characters open up and, therefore, the performances of the actors get more raw and honest. The two actors slip effortlessly between the characters from the play and the characters in the film, and it goes much deeper than just simple acting. There's electricity between Thomas and Vanda, and each actor plays off of the other, diving headfirst into the subtext of the words. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, there is no going back; both actors are all-in with their characters. Venus in Fur is a very live and raw piece of work, and Seigner and Amalric make the torture through which they put each other look easy.