Adapted from David Ives' award-magnet stage play, "Venus in Fur" is an enticing two-character play-within-a-play that always keeps the audience off-guard.
Originally set in New York City, the film version by exiled director Roman Polanski is set in Paris, in French with English subtitles. The seductive play doesn't lose anything in translation.
A writer-director, Thomas Novachek, (Mathieu Almaric) is auditioning actresses for a play, and it's been a frustrating day. Complaining to his significant other during a cellphone call about not finding the right person, in blows Vanda Jordan (Emmanuelle Seigner), an actress, very late, who has been caught in a storm. Oh the metaphors.
He says auditions are over, she insists she's made for the part. He finally relents. She's intriguing, but a bit of a mess and desperate for a job. She switches into a period costume, for the play is set in medieval times. Let the games begin!
The play is about an aristocrat entering an agreement with a woman to dominate him as her slave. Novachek has adapted this work from a controversial 1870 novel "Venus in Furs" by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Ahem, he is the root of the word "masochism." I do not have to spell out where this play is headed.
Yes, it is a tad kinky and deceptive in its layers of meaning.
The audition becomes a dissection of the material -- she happens to hold the entire script, claims her agent sent it. She brought her own props. There is more to this encounter than meets the eye.
Her audition is electric. She has profound insight into the material.They read the script, read into the script, discuss their personal lives. Things get messier. Erotic energy builds -- it's unavoidable, given the play's material.
The balance of power wavers back and forth, but then shifts to this dime-a-dozen actress that's not so average, not in the least. She is in complete control. What is going on here?
The vivacious Emmanuelle Seigner ("The Diving Bell and Butterfly") is sensational as the pushy and blunt Vanda. She happens to be married to Polanski.
Almaric ("The Grand Budapest Hotel"), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the director in his younger days, captures the arrogance, confusion and surrender of the director.
The play is bold and cleverly constructed, an intense evening of theater. The playwright and director collaborated on the screenplay, so it is faithful to the drama, which premiered off-Broadway in 2010 and moved to Broadway in 2011.
The two performers are spellbinding in their roles, fully caught up in the material and their characters' personalities.
What Doesn't Work
It is a two-person play on a stage, so there is only so much one can do with interior shots and camera angles. Like his previous "God of Carnage" adaptation, Polanski is limited by the show's claustrophobic construction, but astutely keeps the camera where it needs to be, letting the actors draw us into a very tangled cat-and-mouse exercise.
While the energy of a live theater production can't be duplicated on screen, the movie does bring the source material to a wider audience. And giving art broader exposure is always a good thing.
3 stars out of 4
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Almaric
Not Rated: Foreign Film, but would be for mature audiences