Talk to Her, by David Bax
In the opening scene of Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (adapted from the David Ives play with the help of Ives himself), Thomas, played by Mathieu Almaric, stands alone on a stage in a small theater, complaining into his cellphone about his inability to find a suitable female lead for his new play, which is called Venus in Fur and, like Ives’ play, is inspired by the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. This self-conscious layering comes to a head when Thomas facetiously suggests that perhaps he should play the role himself. On one level, that’s a sly joke about Almaric’s obvious resemblance to Polanski himself. More deeply, though, it’s foreshadowing for a story that will come to hold a creative artist painfully accountable for the assumptions and machinations he visits upon his creations.
Just as Thomas is finishing his phone call, ready to head home to his fiancée after a fruitless day of auditions, an actress enters the theater. She’s had a bad day and missed her appointment for the tryout. She’s sure her agent set it up for 2:15, even if she’s not on the list. If Thomas will just give her a few minutes… Eventually she gets her way, reading the first scene. Thomas is impressed enough to allow her to continue. And continue and continue. This actress who at first appeared so flustered increasingly seems to have been better and better prepared and, as the audition goes on, it starts to become more her play than his.
Thomas is beguiled by this woman, named Vanda and played by Emmanuelle Seigner. In order for the story to work, so must we be. Seigner plays the part just as Vanda plays Thomas, gliding from deceptive airheadedness to seductive intimidation and a thousand other points between. Once she has her hooks in, he and we are in her hands without exception.
Ives, Polanski and Seigner collude at times to make Vanda a seemingly supernatural muse, the almost literal dreamgirl all too familiar from the works of, say, Woody Allen. But there’s cunning here. The icky duplicitousness of Allen the man and Allen the artist is precisely what’s on trial. What’s unspoken but as loud as a firetruck is that Thomas is as fitting a surrogate for Polanski himself as he is for Allen.
Stylistically, however, the amber-hued faux-verite of Allen is the wrong corollary. In its recipe of classicism mixed with lowbrow suspense, Venus in Fur more closely resembles the sophisticated pulp of Pedro Almodovar. And not just because cross-dressing comes into play.
The entire story takes place on the theater’s stage and Polanski uses the setting wisely. While keeping one foot in reality, he can use changes in the overhead lights to shift the setting drastically. We are in a hotel room, then a therapist’s office, then a garden; each location’s boundaries defined by a wash of color that makes the stage richly sensual and tactile. By permitting you to see the method of the artificiality, Polanski can be arch without having to apologize for it.
Polanski’s last film, Carnage, was also adapted from a stage play. Both films are fast-paced, confrontational comedies with a razor sharp bite. But where Carnage was a shrill, occasionally pedantic affair that quickly wore out its welcome, Venus in Fur zooms forward with an intractable momentum, as much a delight to watch as a wonder to behold. It’s Polanski’s best film in many years but, just like his protagonist, he’s not off the hook for who he is.