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Cannes Review: Emmanuelle Seigner A Raucous Revelation In Polanski’s Otherwise Stagy, Pointless ‘Venus In Fur’

Cannes Review: Emmanuelle Seigner A Raucous Revelation In Polanski’s Otherwise Stagy, Pointless ‘Venus In Fur’

Ever had the feeling, when the credits roll and the lights go up, that you’ve been watching a completely different film to everyone else? Welcome to our morning, which was spent at a screening of the last Cannes 2013 competition film, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the David Ives broadway play “Venus in Fur.” 

Sure, there were laughs to be had, for which the delightful surprise of leading lady (and Polanski’s wife) Emmanuelle Seigner’s performance was largely to thank, and the witty inventiveness of the first act or so had us quite on board. But the overwrought twists and on-the-nose inversions of the second half, all the bigger for taking place in one contained space, along with the sneaking suspicion that the film thought it was being terribly transgressive and daring when it actually felt facile and not a little skeezy, cooled us considerably. So much so that when the three French guys next to us leapt to their feet applauding and shouting bravo, we did fleetingly wonder if we hadn’t blacked out and regained consciousness at the end of a subsequent screening, of something much, much better. No, the love in the room was for “Venus in Fur,” an apparently faithful adaptation of a play that, based on this evidence, we have to hazard we wouldn’t much like either.

That’s always a pitfall in talking about a film based on a play so let’s say up front that we’re not familiar with it in its theatrical form, and therefore many of the criticisms we have of the film may very well be inherent issues with the play. But there’s still a reason Polanski chose this work to adapt, this story to tell, so we’ll leave the disclaimer at that and refer to him as the author of the film, and its story, for simplicity’s sake.

Tom (Mathieu Amalric) is a theater director in the harried process of trying to cast the leading lady for his new play, an adaptation of an 18th century erotic tale of sexual domination/submission. Turning up late for the auditions is Vanda (Seigner) who coincidentally shares a name with the lead character, but as a gum-chewing, vulgar, trashy parvenu without an ounce of finesse, she’s the polar opposite of what Tom is looking for. Nonetheless he is persuaded to audition her, and is duly floored by her skilful transformation into the very embodiment of the Vanda of the play. Transported by her performance, they read on and on through the play, their fictional counterparts conflating with their ‘real’ selves, until every duality established at the outset (director/actor, dominant/submissive, vulgar/elegant, creator/created etc) has been reversed, often more than once, and Tom experiences a kind of ecstatic revelation as regards his attitude to sex, gender and desire.

Polanski has prior experience directing films based on modern plays, after “Death and the Maiden” and 2011’s “Carnage.” Despite the recent rehabilitation of the former in certain circles, we have to say we haven’t been a fan of these previous efforts and the issues we found with them are pertinent to ‘Venus.’ With the whole film taking place between just two players, inside a theater (aside from a really gorgeous opening shot that, set to Alexandre Desplat’s immense music promised a grandeur never otherwise delivered,) as time wears on that stagebound interiority really starts to drain the oxygen from the air. Furthermore, dramatic moments meant to communicate themes across a live room full of people, some of them far away in the cheap seats, feel grotesquely enormous in a tight two-shot. And with the themes of this play not exactly subtle or delicate, particularly at the climax, it all becomes a bit grating — inescapable in its heavy-handedness. We’re just never wholly sure what the point of filming a play is unless you reinterpret the material to be more cinematic, and despite some nimble camerawork, ‘Venus’ feels content to retell through a lot of very talky talk, rather than reinvent.

Although we have a problem with the format, perhaps we’d have been able to move beyond it had the story worked better. Again initially, there’s a breeziness to the proceedings that perked us up — Seigner is really superbly adept in a role that’s a gift for an actress wanting to showcase her lightning-quick versatility, and her various characterizations are spot-on to the point that, as the author intends, it becomes difficult to work out when the actress is acting, and when, if ever, she’s not. But the story is really of the director character, Tom, and his journey through the play-within-the-film to a kind of personal sexual epiphany and the inversion of many of his assumptions about sexual power politics. Which is all very well, but the BDSM themes don’t so much suggest these inversions as tie you up and whip you with them and while we get the feeling we’re supposed to see Tom’s journey of self-discovery as terribly transgressive and daring, it actually feels kind of schoolboyish and quaint. He wears heels! He gets tied up! He discovers he’s being manipulated and likes it, the kinky little monkey!

It’s also, of course, all about Tom. While Vanda is the dervish, the shapeshifter, the provocateuse, and by far the more interesting character (or set of characters), her purpose in the film is to act on Tom to change his life in the best Manic Pixie Dream Girl tradition, albeit with added kink. Not to get all “phallocentrism” and “male gaze” on you, but as terrifically fun as Vanda is, it’s feels like kind of a waste that this not her story. In fact she’s not really a person at all but a muse, a goddess whose sole intricate purpose is to act as an agent of change for a middle-aged man’s perception of eroticism. The tacit assumption that this purpose is entirely worth it, and entirely worth our attention, and everyone’s going to chuckle along with the joke just seemed, how can we say it…skeezy. To say nothing of discomfort we felt at the guffaws that sounded out when the Polanski proxy Amalric goes off on a rant about the culture of oversensitivity to issues like “child abuse” (cue a thousand journalist pencils scribbling in the dark on a thousand journalist pads.) Perhaps the line between pointedly meta and flat-out tasteless is finer than we’d imagined but that moment felt well, kind of gross in its overt self-justification.

Seigner is terrifically good and deserves all the great notices coming her way. And there’s definitely wit and verbal dexterity on display, and a fun kind of dismantling/rebuilding of our preconceptions throughout. But beneath a brittle veneer of verbal dash and cleverness this stagebound adaptation has little insight to give us into anything except the sexual hubris of an aging man, and frankly, we’re not sure we give a damn. [C]

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Comments

Alan B

Actually I finally saw this movie and quite liked it.

Guy with an opinion

The best thing that could ever happen to the internet is to have all comment sections removed from every website. Then all of you sad people that post garbage day after day after day after day………would realize that none of it means anything. You are literally wasting your lives. You may as well be standing in a forest repeatedly poking a tree with your finger for all the effect you are having on the world. Do yourselves a favor – instead of posting something on a website tomorrow, go take a walk instead; you'll feel better and if you do it for a few days in a row the smart ones among you will realize that, omg, your opinion is absolutely irrelevant and you're better off using your time to do something that actually betters your life. But that won't happen, will it? You're all too narcissistic and egotistical. You actually think what you write on these stupid, little forums that tens of people visit is important. It's all so very sad.

filmstager

If you have ever spent time in France you will find that dramatic textures poured like thick syrup are the cultural signatures. They revel in slight intrinsic nuance and its not always about the destination but the implicit slow journey to get there. American sensibilities are removed from such subtle meanderings, we want answers…now!

Mr Anonymous

Wow, what the hell is going on here?!

Came here to read the review and got a shock when i noticed 113 comments and thought the film can't be that good! Can it? What have i missed? Lol.

Finish or Ban him

This guy, who we should not name, because he obviously has to prattle on, is a cancer.

Vino

Polanski should stop filming >plays< repped by his talent agency.

CJ

Isn't the writer of this review the same girl who listed Charlize Theron in Young Adult as one of the top 10 "Essential Anti-Heroes in Cinema History"… Why even bother?

JC

Another movie by a pedophile giving vent to his twisted fantasies.

The Doctor

I had to give this comment section a read, since I heard the review was stirring up controversy. I cannot comment on the review itself because I am not familiar with the play/film… but the way I read these comments were: People critiquing the review (harmless/expected) > People critiquing the critiques of the review (hypocritical) > Alan B throwing a hissy fit (pathetic) …

Spoi

Exhibit A: Mental illness on the Internet – This comments section.

AS

Oh dear, Jarrod's at it again. Whether it's on Letterboxd (under the name "Ryan"), Rope of Silicon (under an assortment of different names ranging from "Jarrod" to "alex") or The Playlist (generally under "Alan B.," although he assumes various different aliases here as well), Jarrod never fails to incite random arguments, correct grammar and quibble about SEMANTICS. It's shocking that a 28 year old man – who claims to work almost EVERY DAY – has so much free time to troll. He doesn't need to "get a life" (as Realer Alan B suggests below) because this IS his life.

Edward

What the hell is going on in this thread??

patchthehavoc

… well, what an interesting digression into the land of sexist ad hominems thinly disguised as indignation over the critical objective lens being applied.

I haven't seen the film, obviously, but the play is excellent and the direction by Walter Bobbie was extremely even-handed in its treatment of the inherent gender politics, agency, power shifts, etc., and Vanda's agent-of-change role did not feel as if it was undertaken in service of Thomas' journey of self-discovery at all; it felt more like an unexpected but mutual embarkation. Reading this review, it sounds to me — sight blind, naturellement — that the lens through which Polanski filtered the source material is… well, perhaps one that appeals to him/one through which he understood the material. The critique of the male gaze through which to see the film is certainly a valid one, and I would not be surprised if the whole thing is thrown fatally off-kilter because of that shift in focal perspective. I was never going to see it anyway, because I have little interest in putting a cent of support behind a criminal and his apologists; I just think that this is a pity, because the material is EXCELLENT and deserves better treatment and I'm sure the performances must have been very good as well.

BEF

Yes there are mistakes; however, people are expecting reviews immediately on this site to know what's up at Cannes … there are gonna be mistakes and human errors to get it to you guys so freakin' fast. I'd appreciate a little more time to craft the review, however, so many folks would be posting "where's the XXXXXXX review?" if they'd seen a review of it somewhere earlier.

jacob

I don't get the fuss. It's a good review from a person who didn't like the film. Settle down, y'all.

El Hanso

Why is it that the Playlist readers are among the most hostile in the online film news world? I visit quite a few different sites, but nowhere else does stuff like this happen. And it happens frequently. Readers attacking and insulting the writers for the slightest mistakes. I mean, yes, if there are mistakes (like the "Macbeth" omission here) – point them out. If you disagree, tell us about it. But it sometimes feels like people are just desperately looking for that one however big or small mistake to force another rant. A rant that very often feels smug and pretentious. Because on The Playlist it's somehow 'en vogue' to badmouth everything. And to be honest, it's kind of pissing me off.

Sir Richard

Polanski has been mastering intimate 1-on-1 scenes his entire career. No one can work a camera around 2 characters like Polanski, in my opinion. I'm surprised to read an extremely unflattering review of the film (almost the same grade Jessica Kiang gave Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, ouch!) This play seems ripe for Polanski's to display his "icy wit" and unflinching eye. Still excited to see this! Polanski's world-view isn't for everyone… One must separate the artist from the man. (cough, cough)

TwitterBusted

Jessica Kiang (the reviewer) called herself "misty-eyed" the night before this review on Twitter. I think this comment section has some harsh feelings toward misty-eyed-Jessica-Kiang… Better invest in some eye drops… Your hazy vision produced a hazy critique. ;)

Hugo

The reviewer forgot Polanski's Macbeth, which would make four films, not three, based on a play.

TheBigLachowski

This is one of the worst reviews ever posted on this (usually) great blog. Were there no other available writers this website could have utilized? This review single handedly dwindled the blogs credibility, in the opinion of me and my colleagues…

Steven

You people need to get a life. If you don't like the reviewers on The Playlist, stop reading and go elsewhere. There are PLENTY of other critics reporting from Cannes. Find someone you like, and follow them.

Szinkfoer

Quite funny how Jessica calls this movie "pointless" in her headline… Jessica, just incase you didn't realize… according to reviews/responses worldwide over the net, you were the only person in the audience that didn't "get" it. This film clearly went over your head. There's a difference between calling a movie "pointless" and just not getting it. Also: calling it "stagy" proves the ignoramus mindset you had this morning. The movie is based off a play, and takes place in a THEATER… majorly on a stage… Yeah I think it's safe to say this film went over your head…

JulesJim

Looks like Jessica Kiang forgot to wipe the misandry out of her eyes this morning before she watched & reviewed this film…..

Charles78

Wow does this review need an edit. Are there no editors working for The Playlist?

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