CANNES – For a man who spent the better part of a year under house arrest between 2009 and 2010, it’s odd that Roman Polanski seems to have subjected his own art to the same punishment ever since. “Venus in Fur” is his second straight film — after 2011’s largely forgettable “Carnage” — to fashion an economical stage play into clammy real-time cinema that doesn’t leave the confines of a single interior space.
It’s not a movement without precedent in the 79-year-old director’s career: his 1994 adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” was the first, and remains the best, of these seemingly offhand chamber pieces. But one could argue that the recent revival of his interest in them is indicative of a director increasingly unwilling to engage with the outside world — whether due to age, practical production wherewithal or the unusual media scrutiny that has plagued Polanski for over half his life. Polanski made his last, and perhaps final, substantive personal statement over a decade ago with his indirect Holocaust memoir “The Pianist”; since then, it’s all been arch, sometimes enjoyable exercises in evasion — his passionless, oddly interior adaptation of “Oliver Twist” included.
These exercises don’t come archer or more evasive than “Venus in Fur,” a faithful-to-the-point-of-transcription film of American playwright David Ives’s Off-Broadway-to-Broadway hit that, only last year, won a Best Actress Tony for young star Nina Arianda. A spry, witty play-within-a-play riffing on the erotic 19th-century novel-within-a-novella “Venus in Furs” by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, it’s a text that strikes sparks on paper (and presumably on stage too) without going much deeper than said foolscap folio.
In Polanski’s hands, it hasn’t become anything much more or less: he’s kept the theatrical environment, for starters, though you’d have thought transferring this smoke-and-mirrors material to a film-industry context would have been easy enough. Translating it into French and relocating the action (so to speak) to a Parisian theater, meanwhile, adds little more than a light cosmopolitan foam to what is effectively a single cinematic espresso: short and invigorating while the buzz lasts.
After a giddying opening shot that whooshes down a stormy Parisian boulevard to the accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat’s ominously jaunty score, we’re whisked into a ramshackle theater from which the film will not stray — and where it seems Mathieu Amalric’s protagonist Thomas may remain indefinitely. He’s in the process of casting the lead for his radicalized stae adaptation for von Sacher-Masoch’s novel, but has found every auditioning actress inadequate for the role of the sexually strident, persuasive Vanda.
He initially thinks the same about the coarse, seemingly none-too-bright Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a scatty, unannounced late-arrival who shares a name with the character (or so she claims), but not much else. As she blithely overrides his protests to proceed with her surprisingly nuanced, well-rehearsed reading, however, she becomes so attuned to the role that reality and fiction begin to blur: is she seducing Thomas as the novel’s Vanda, or as her own woman?
Either way, she’s good at it:. As with her literary namesake, it’s not long before conventional gender roles are being heavily challenged in their on- and off-script dialogue, and the power balance between master and slave, teacher and student, or indeed director and star, is reset. And yes, some kinkier reversals are on the cards — masochism was named for von Sacher-Masoch, after all — as Vanda resolves to give Thomas a taste of the objectified female experience. Or perhaps that should be Severin, Thomas’s 1870 alter ego, as the transitions between the text and the inner text grow harder to determine.
It’s frisky, funny stuff, unavoidably slight but given considerable verve by the game performances; Seigner, in particular, locates a certain snap, a kind of fizzy anger, in Vanda that we haven’t previously seen from the actress. Both actors are considerably older than their stage counterparts, which implies a different kind of hunger, and a greater degree of knowing, behind Vanda’s motivations in particular. Meanwhile, it’s high time Polanski worked with Amalric, his closest physical counterpart: watching him flirt, fight and verbally tussle with the director’s wife on screen, it’s tempting to wonder just how much we are being told about their marriage.
Then again, “Venus in Fur” finds Polanski repeatedly thumbing his nose at armchair psychologists too quick to find overarching themes in this (or any other) work. “How can you play her so well and be so fucking stupid about her?” fumes Thomas, when Vanda suggests the play is in fact “all about child abuse.” It’s enough to make you briefly wonder how many Polanski classics we’ve misread by the director’s standards; not that this flavorful diversion invites repeated readings in the first place. He’s having palpable fun here, but I’m ready for him to go play outdoors.