Cannes Review: 'Venus in Fur'

"This impoverished world that we live in!" rebukes Mathieu Amalric when it is suggested that the transformative beating that turned Severin von Kusiemski into the world's first official masochist is something as mundane as "child abuse." A chancy stance for Roman Polanski to take as the world's best known unpunished sex offender. As is his style, he somehow gets away with it, using wit and sophistication.

And it very much is Polanski talking. In "Venus in Fur," Amalric, who is a damn near doppelganger for the Polanski of 30 years ago, plays a director having difficulty casting the lead in his adaptation of what he repeatedly refers to as a major work of world literature, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Furs." The book is mostly remembered as a cornerstone of transgressive erotica and for inspiring a Velvet Underground song. To Amalric's Thomas Novachek, however, it is a noble play about great love. Once auditioning actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) walks through the door, he'll realize he doesn't know the first thing about the story, or how much damage grand pronouncements about women from "classics" can do.

Polanski's real-time version of David Ives' play is a two-hander, but the focus is all on Seigner. It's a performance that would make Gena Rowlands proud: sharp, erotic, tender, unpredictable. Seigner is a gorgeous 46 years old and is quick to flaunt her womanliness in an attempt to get this part. At first she seems like a scatterbrain (she's late for the call and catches Thomas just as he's packing up), but in time she'll slowly reveal that she's been rehearsing this scheme all along, and perhaps wants more than just an acting gig.

Around 30 minutes in, "Venus In Fur" takes a much welcome break from reality, and the witty banter between director and actor takes on a much more symbolic and heavier (though still droll!) tone. The "rules" are never established, but this ambiguity is part of the fun. At the screening I attended the French dialogue had English subtitles, and a decision was made to show the lines from the play in italics. I think this is a poor choice; I imagine that French speakers who ignored the subtitles had a much richer experience having to suss out which moments were "really" happening.

You'd think a Roman Polanski movie about a play about an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch would be loaded with perversion, but the discussion of sexual fetishism is all rather clinical. From my seat in the theater, the real issue is the exploitation of women by the entertainment industry, even when offered supposedly empowering roles.

This is all teased-out in a series of power-play moves and role-reversals, culminating in Amalric wearing makeup and tied to an enormous prickly phallus. (Just go with it.) The transformation is subtle and smooth, with plenty of witty remarks. Despite being very much a "filmed play" it doesn't come across as too theatrical. Polanski uses plenty of close-ups and keeps the action moving. Despite 99% of the movie being in one room, it isn't suffocating.

This is the second theatrical adaptation in a row for Polanski. He certainly has a knack for it. While the social commentary at the heart of "Venus in Furs" is rich and the repartee is enjoyable, I must confess that his version of Yasmina Reza's "Carnage" had a little bit more oomph. That, too, featured shifting power dynamics, but its terra firma reality lent it a little more heft. Despite having no substantial problems with "Venus in Fur" I must confess that it is a tasty light hors d'oeuvre rather than a full meal.

SCORE: 7.0 / 10

Movie & TV Awards 2018