Roman Polanski’s new film, Based on a True Story, will shortly be making its premiere at Cannes. Here’s my take on his previous picture, 2013’s Venus in Fur.
Venus in Fur belongs to Roman Polanski’s wife, Emanuelle Seigner. Seigner has appeared in her husband’s films before (as a French smuggler in Frantic, a sexual dynamo in Bitter Moon, and the Devil herself in The Ninth Gate), but her magnetic turn here outshines any of her previous appearances. Adapted from the play by David Ives, Venus in Fur remains fixated upon the complexities of femininity (and masculine ideas thereof), and Seigner proves to be a spectacular vessel for these mysteries. Seigner’s age has only sharpened her raw sensuality; her sly eyes have never seemed more entrancing or ravenous. As the enigmatic, vital Vanda, she runs nearly the whole gamut of expression, never allowing the audience or flustered playwright/director Thomas Novacheck to get a lock on her true persona.
As Polanski elevates his wife, he also humiliates himself, situating David Ives’ one-room play as a autocritique by casting his dopplegänger, Matthieu Amalric, in the part of Novacheck. Amalric, for his part, delivers an admirably twitchy performance, and commits himself wholly to his character’s pomposity. Novacheck’s mortification, Venus in Fur‘s ultimate object, makes of a mockery of sadomasochism, as well as any artists who would disguise their own perversions as art. Polanski has explored this territory before–Venus in Fur serves as an extension and revision of Bitter Moon–but he has never so brazenly made himself the butt of the joke.
This brings a level of playful complexity to Venus in Fur that eluded Polanski’s previous film, the rather slight, albeit enjoyable, Carnage. Like Venus in Fur, Carnage tries to derive intensity from intimacy (it, like Venus in Fur, is an adaptation of a one-scene, one-location play), but its antics were too cartoonishly broad, too dependent on the wild gesticulations of its cast, to tap into the existential terror that runs as an undercurrent through Polanski’s best work. Even if Polanski’s direction in Carnage showcased something of his confident formal mastery (as always, Polanski’s attention to geography is impressive), but he improves on that work here, elegantly tracking the ever-shifting relational dynamics between Venus in Fur‘s dual leads, with Ives’ play offering Polanski some outrageous visual gags in addition to all the witty verbal sparring.
It would be in very poor taste to describe how it all concludes. Polanski has always taken great care with his endings, and, as with 2009’s The Ghost Writer, Venus in Fur‘s finale both exceeds and improves upon the preceding material. The film’s final moments are not unanticipated in terms of narrative content, but in execution, they are positively bracing, finding a sublime balance of the ethereal and the grotesque. For Polanski, humiliation is its own kind of art form.