The film opens with a theater director/writer named Thomas (Matthieu Almaric) getting ready to leave for the day, angry and disappointed in the quality of actresses that have auditioned for a role in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs. As he’s about to walk out the door, a mysterious and eccentric woman named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) enters the theater, requesting to audition for one of the lead roles, Wanda von Dunajew, even though she’s late. Eventually, Thomas gives in to Vanda who somehow also knows every line in the play, and reads the role of Severin von Kusiemski as she continues to audition. Shortly into the audition Thomas realizes he has found his Wanda, but as the two continue to read through the script, their collaboration becomes more intense and aggressive, with lines between the audition and reality eventually blurring, building to a fascinating and tense climax that’s oddly satisfying yet very weird.
Firstly, let me premise this review by informing you know that the novel Venus in Furs has strong themes of sadomasochism and female dominance throughout. In the story, the main character Severin is so infatuated with a woman that he asks to be her slave, to degrade and use him as she wishes. The story goes from there but this basic of idea of submitting to the will of a woman becomes the inevitable driving force behind the film. In fact, the parallels between the film’s plot and the story they are reenacting are explicitly clear and watching the slow turn of events and manipulation on stage is fascinating.
It’s clear early on that Vanda is attempting to play and manipulate Thomas but her motives as to why are not. She continues to dodge his questions and eventually his aggressive attacks, be it on her take of the character, her thoughts on the way the scene should play out, or how she even got the script are scaled back and his protective guard over himself and his work continues to fall lower as time goes on. He becomes more invested in the work and show they are putting on, curious to see what kind of potential it has for an audience.
Though the film eventually gets pretty intense and thrilling, it’s also a very humorous and, like Carnage, much of it comes from the bitter banter between the leads. What’s even more refreshing is that although the film is in French and German, none of the humor is lost which sometimes happens when crossing cultural boundaries but the script and dialogue is so tight and on point that it’s impossible to miss the jokes and hilarity that ensures through the picture.
While a lot of the credit goes to David Ives’ source material and his collaboration with Polanski on the script, the two lone cast members are what truly make the film. Mathieu Amalric, the lead from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and his co-star from that film Emmanuelle Seigner, are absolutely brilliant. From the opening frame until the credits role you can’t take your eyes off them, and that’s not because one of this is always on screen, it’s because they are highly captivating. They somehow engage you without paying you any mind and their chemistry is off the charts, resulting in both seamless banter and important exchanges. It becomes even more impressive when the two decide to swap roles.
Venus in Fur is not a flawless film but it is highly engaging and wildly entertaining. There are points in the film that do seem a bit off, most notably one weird and outrageous moment during the finale, though that could be the result of it taking a very European approach. Maybe my slight distaste is more with Thomas’ weakness than actual issues, either way another screening is clearly needed to decide.
On paper, Venus in Fur was a film that I had absolutely no interest in seeing but within the first five minutes my expectations for what I thought I’d be watching were shattered. I’ve never seen the play and thus cannot account for how close it sticks to the source material, but I can say with confidence that Polanski’s adaptation is an excellent class in filmmaking and that he has another certifiable hit on his hands. If you loved Carnage you’re guaranteed to love Venus in Fur, but which one you like better comes down to your preference for the type of stories the films tell.
Rating: An engrossing, hilarious, intense, and surprising drama that’s likely to win over most audience members that watch it (7.8/10)