This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
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]