If you were lucky enough to see the David Ives play of Venus in Fur, part of the fun of the film is comparing the differences between stage and screen, though truth be told – not to mention good news for those who enjoyed the play – there really aren’t that many.
The set up is the same, only the location and language have changed. Instead of NYC we’re in Paris, and instead of a rented actors workshop we’re in a cavernous, empty theatre on a stormy evening. Director/playwright Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric) is trying to cast the role of Wanda von Dunayev for his next play, an adaptation of the 1870 novel of female dominance Venus in Furs, but he’s not having luck. The problem with Thomas is that women in the modern world can’t seem to live up to his view of how the nineteenth century aristocrat should be played.
As Thomas is about to call it a day and shut the theatre, a woman hauling a large shoulder bag walks in to the auditorium out of the rain, unannounced. She strolls down the aisle towards the stage area – from the camera’s point of view she appears to float – and immediately takes control, apologizes for being late and begs Thomas to let her audition before he leaves for the night. Her name is Vanda (Emmanuell Seigner) and at first Vanda is everything Thomas dislikes in a woman. She’s a foul-mouthed tornado of untapped energy, a brazen and sometimes vulgar character who shows no potential when it comes to portraying a woman like Thomas’ Wanda. Yet the moment she starts quoting Wanda’s lines, something happens. It’s not that she simply alters the tone of her voice or her pronunciation, in the blink of an eye she appears to embody the character as though the actress who had just entered was now gone and the real aristocratic Wanda von Dunayev was suddenly in the room.
From there, Vanda’s audition begins, a thorough reading and re-enactment of the play with Thomas reading the male role. What surprises the director is that this woman, who seems to be an unorganized, scattershot mess, somehow knows the play by heart. When she recites the dialog she’s already off script, plus she’s brought with her a nineteenth century costume perfect for the role and even a smoking jacket for Thomas that just happens to be a perfect fit.
At this point we’re suddenly aware that something odd is going on, something even a little supernatural perhaps, made all the more suspicious by the atmospheric thunder and lightning going on outside. Thomas is mesmerized by Vanda. Like the male character in his play he falls under her spell. When Vanda breaks character and momentarily falls back to her natural self in order to mouth an opinion on whether the play is really porn rather than art, the nineteenth century Wanda disappears, but it’s too late for Thomas; he’s hooked, and just like the characters in his play, roles at the audition are reversed, powers are shifted, and Vanda as Wanda assumes control.
After the release of the recent Carnage, based on the play God of Carnage, director Roman Polanski continues he’s recent streak of adapting film versions of American plays with Venus in Fur, and like before he’s cast well. Vanda is played by Polanski’s real-life wife, and she understands the role perfectly. It’s not that she simply looks and sounds right in her transformation from an audacious wannabe performer in desperate need of a job to the perfect woman for the role; she also instills a surprising sense of fear that should set off alarms. When she produces a gun or a knife as a prop there’s a real sense of apprehension in her performance: This woman might be dangerous. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that actor Mathieu Amalric who plays Thomas bears a striking resemblance to a younger Polanski.
As a two person film, Venus in Fur doesn’t satisfy in the way the play does. In the stage version, Vanda bursts in to the studio the moment Thomas has made his phone call where he complains about the women of today and his myopic view of them. In the film, Thomas is having that same conversation as Vanda enters the auditorium. She can hear his narrow analysis as she makes her way to the foot of the stage. It’s a small change but a significant one. It means we’re already aware that Vanda knows how Thomas sees women, she’s heard him spell it out, whereas in the play we have no clue what Vanda does or doesn’t know about her potential director until later.
The ending may raise eyebrows. To explain why is to spoil the surprise, but to say that the early suspicions of something supernatural happening are not only realized, the movie displays no doubt as to who Vanda really is or what she represents. The play pulled it back some, and the piece was better for it.
MPAA Rating: Unrated Length: 96 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)