A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. 3 of 4 stars.
Movie review: ‘Venus in Fur’
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Tony-winning play screens at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art as part of its five-film French Cinema Weekend.
All the world’s a stage, and an arrogant auteur winds up unsure of his marks in “Venus in Fur,” the latest film from Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski.
Adapted in French from David Ives 2011 Tony-winning Broadway play, the film screens at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art as part of its five-film French Cinema Weekend.
Now, for the standard Polanski disclaimer: Although undisputedly a cinematic genius, Polanski was convicted in 1977 of the statutory rape of a 13-year old girl and fled the United States to avoid final sentencing. If you choose not to view his movies in light of this, that’s, of course, well within your rights.
Now, on with the review.
Ives, who wrote the screenplay with Polanski, based his play on Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella “Venus in Furs,” about a woman who agrees to take on an infatuated intellectual as her personal slave. We get the term “masochism” from the author’s name and his novella, so that gives you some insight into the source material. (Titian’s gorgeous 16th century painting “Venus with a Mirror” also inspired the novella, play and movie and a secreted postcard of it becomes a pivotal plot point.)
Set on a cartoonishly stormy night in an empty rundown theater where the trappings of a musical version of “Stagecoach” provide an amusingly incongruous backdrop, “Venus in Fur” excels as an acting showcase for Emmanuelle Seigner (who happens to be Polanski’s wife) and Mathieu Amalric (who happens to bear no small resemblance to a young Polanski), who previously co-starred in 2007’s beautiful fact-based drama “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
The themes may get complicated, but the layered play-within-a-play-within-a-film story is fairly simple: Amalric plays Thomas Novacheck, a haughty, ill-tempered playwright who has decided to direct his own stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novella. When we first meet him, Thomas is railing on the phone about the shallow, dimwitted actresses who auditioned that day and despairing that he’ll ever find that right woman to play the regal switch-wielding dominatrix Vanda.
Before Thomas can leave for the day, a latecomer bursts in with a crash of thunder. She may share his character’s name, but this Vanda (Seigner) is Thomas’ worst nightmare: a brash, foul-mouthed, gum-smacking aspiring actress dressed like a streetwalker, ill-prepared for a reading and unaware of the difference between “ambivalent” and “ambiguous.” Or so it seems.
But she’s brought her own period gown, along with an elaborate sob story for her tardiness, and bullies the exasperated playwright into giving her a tryout. He even reluctantly agrees to read the part of the male lead himself.
Once she takes the stage, though, the actress suddenly snaps into the majestic, alluring character of Vanda. Even more, she knows both characters’ every line by heart, is familiar with the book and has intimate insights into Vanda. Let the battles of the sexes begin.
Thomas is first shocked, then intrigued and finally obsessed with having her as his Vanda. But the actress critiques his dialogue, rewrites the opening of his plays and challenges both his work’s themes and his claims of fidelity to his fiancée. The pair shifts seamlessly between their own sexually tense exchanges and the play’s plot and dialogue, keeping both each other and the viewer enthralled.
Between the excellent performances and Alexandre Desplat’s slyly playful score, Polanski’s film nails the story’s power plays, mind games and wicked humor, even if the latter becomes garish by the end. Although there’s some satisfaction in revenge by proxy, “Venus in Fur” ultimately feels less than grand because it neglects to drape itself in deeper, more resonant emotions.
French Cinema Weekend
Featuring: “Le Chef” at 5:30 p.m. Friday, “Chinese Puzzle” at 8 p.m. Friday, “The French Minister Quai d’Orsay” at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, “Venice in Fur” at 8 p.m. Saturday and “Queen Margot” 20th Anniversary Director’s Cut at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Oklahoma City Museum of Art Noble Theater, 415 Couch Drive.
Information: 236-3100 or www.okcmoa.com.