Monday, December 02, 2013
When discussing Roman Polanski one seems almost morally beholden to mention the rape conviction he fled in 1976; with his new film, an adaptation of David Ives’ Broadway play Venus in Fur, Polanski makes it easy for you by tackling his own renown for sexual predation head-on. The film, like the source text, features just two characters, a theatre director auditioning actresses for the lead of his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s bondage classic Venus in Furs, and the brassy, seemingly empty-headed actress who buttonholes him into giving her a try. Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner plays the role of the gum-chewing, sharp-tongued Vanda (who is looking to play Wanda von Dunayev), while Mathieu Amalric is Thomas, the harried playwright-cum-director. Amalric looks like an only slightly more frazzled version of a young Polanski and the knowledge that his Jewish mother hailed from the same Polish village as the director makes you wonder if there might even be a hidden family link. In any case, you wonder why Polanski initially overlooked Amalric in favour of the much less frantic Louis Garrel, whose participation was curtailed only by a delay in production.
So close to Polanski’s own character and experience this film appears to speak, it is easy to forget it is actually based on a previously staged play. Vanda appears late, drenched by a Paris storm, at the theatre where Thomas, wearied by a succession of hopeless hopefuls, is wrapping up and about to leave. He is having none of her protestations, imagining this uncouth, mouthy suburban woman to be of the same stamp as those he has summarily dismissed. The opening exchanges are generic sitcom stuff, with Vanda an incarnation of Janice from Friends or Jennifer Tilly’s Olive Neal in Bullets over Broadway. When Vanda finally persuades Thomas to let her have her turn, she climbs into a tent-like Victorian frock and her delivery of the lines he has written is a revelation. She also shows insights into von Sacher-Masoch’s novel that make Thomas wonder if her vulgar comportment is just a front. Soon however, it is Vanda who is directing Thomas, tormenting and cajoling him in equal measure. When Thomas starts re-enacting roles from Polanski’s past filmography, including one particularly famous one from The Tenant, the film is squarely a commentary about Polanski and his critics.
It is an unusually revealing mise en abîme for a director, even if many of his detractors will simply dismiss it as self-serving. Polanski has spoken of his eternal regret for his rape of Samantha Geimer but has rarely addressed the matter explicitly. Recently he has grumbled in the French media about American ‘puritanism’ restricting filmmakers in the US – preaching to the choir in France, where the media has such a despairingly one-dimensional view of American mores. It’s an oblique way of protesting about his treatment (which, given the unusually privileged protection he has enjoyed as a fugitive from justice, would be more than a little rich). Venus in Fur is, moreover, Polanski’s first film in French, even though he has worked and lived in France since skipping bail almost three decades ago. Despite the theatrical theme and origin, it is far less obviously stagebound than his last film Carnage, also based on a play, by Yasmina Reza. While it can hardly be considered one of the better films of the year, much less a major film in its director’s oeuvre, Venus in Fur is an interesting one that provides an insight into the thinking (however self-righteous) of a director who, his protestations notwithstanding, might be coming round to the idea that the opprobrium he faces is not entirely unwarranted.