Roman Polanski must have salivated when he first heard of the 2010 off-Broadway production of David Ives’s play Venus in Fur. Polanski, of course, couldn’t see the original production in person, since he is still subject to an arrest warrant in the USA, having absconded nearly forty years ago when faced with an almost certain jail term for having sex with a minor.
Despite being a long-time resident in France, Polanski’s film of the play is his first in French. Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure) recalls Polanski’s early films—the ‘short’ Two Men and a Wardrobe, the Polish feature Knife in the Water, and the oneiric Cul-de Sac—in that it is a power-play between opposing forces, and (like the latter pair) a highly sexualised one. The intriguing extra in this cinematic two-hander is that Mathieu Amalric is a dead ringer for a younger Polanski himself, and that Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, plays the femme fatale.
Ives’s play within a play uses the infamous 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the origin of the term masochism) as its brief. Polanski, relocating Ives’s New York to Paris, follows suit. Thomas is the modern-day adaptor of the nineteenth-century novel; we see him on his cell-phone in the opening scene, bemoaning the inadequacy of the young female actors who have auditioned for the role of Wanda. Turning to leave the otherwise deserted suburban theatre, he discovers a scatty, rain-soaked, sexily dressed and potty-mouthed Vanda (the first of many coincidences), who insists, despite his protests, that he audition her. He quickly sees through her coarseness and realises that she is perfect for the role, but remains reluctant to admit it in his attempt to retain the upper hand against a mature, voluptuous, and talented woman to whom he is clearly attracted.
Vanda quickly makes a nonsense of his initiative by insisting he plays her character’s foil, Severin, in the read-through. It is then that she not only reveals, to his mounting consternation, that she has a copy of the full script (in which she is word-perfect) but also starts suggesting revisions, which Thomas eagerly accepts. There ensues an hour of thrust and parry based on the novel’s sexual duel: both figures slide in and out of character to confound and accuse with a view to dominating or seducing the other. Thomas’s rages at Vanda’s trivialising interpretation of the Sacher-Masoch original, and her puncturing of his intellectual pretensions (his over-earnest references to Greek drama and the play’s Austro-Hungarian setting) maintain a high tension between the couple; meanwhile her asides keep the modern production sparking as flamboyantly as a Wilde script.
As Vanda gradually draws Thomas completely into the play within a play—insisting on calling him by his real name, commanding him to call his girlfriend to let her know that he won’t be home that night—the increasingly narrow gap between text and reality disappears completely. Drama, so Vanda/Wanda seems to reminds us, is infinitely reinterpretable.
This piece first appeared in the Oxonian Review bi-weekly newsletter, ORbits
see original text here – http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/thrust-and-parry/