Making a film version of a play is always tricky business, as anyone who has ever tried to make a Shakespearean adaptation would probably tell you. My all time favorite Shakespeare adaptation is Laurence Olivier's 1944 version of Henry V. Made in London in the midst of the Blitz, it is an ingenious Russian doll of a film that starts out as a movie about the actors and craftspeople putting on the original 1599 production at the Globe Theatre. Then, in one sweeping tracking shot, it moves from backstage to the front of the house, where we watch the play slowly transform so that, by the time the climactic Battle of Agincourt occurs, it has become a fully realized film shot on location in a muddy battlefield.
There is more than a little of Henry V's DNA in Venus In Fur, director Roman Polanski's French adaptation of a 2010 Off-Broadway play by David Ives (which is itself an adaptation of Venus In Furs, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's famous 1870 novella), which inspired a song by the Velvet Underground, which, as is explicitly stated by an actor playing a theater director who has an intense and presumably intentional resemblance to the actual director of the film, is not irrelevant. Also, the actress whom the actor playing the director playing the director says that line to is actually the wife of the actual director of the film.
Confused yet? Read on — the rabbit hole goes deeper.
Venus in Fur opens with a slow track through rainy Paris, entering the front door of a rundown theater where Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric), a playwright making his directing debut, is finishing up a fruitless day of auditions for his theatrical adaptation of Venus in Furs. Just as he is lamenting the low quality of actresses these days, Vanda Jordan (Emmanuelle Seigner, Roman Polanski's aforementioned wife) bursts through the door. Hours late for her scheduled audition and dressed in leather and a dog collar for what she believed was an S&M porn role, she seems to reinforce Thomas' vapid actress stereotype. He turns her away, wanting to get home to have dinner with his fiancé, but Vanda's insistence and energy convince Thomas to give her a shot, in part because she shares a name with the play's female protagonist.
Once they begin reading the play, it becomes clear that she is much more intelligent and prepared than she at first seemed, and the director becomes smitten with her. The pair read through the play, and the line between make-believe and reality starts to break down.
When Vanda thought she was auditioning for S&M porn, she was not far from the truth. The 1870 Venus in Furs is an erotic novella responsible for immortalizing the author's name in the term "masochism" — the derivation of sexual pleasure from physical pain. The original text is a classic exploration of the shifting power relationships between a couple in love (or at least lust), and the theatrical adaptation explores those themes by having the two characters comment on and rewrite the text while they trade places as actor and director, master and servant, and even male and female.
In the tradition of Spike Jones' brilliant 2002 Adaptation, where writer Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into the film as the guy who was trying to write a film from a seemingly unadaptable nonfiction book, director Polanski not only casts his wife as the female lead in his film adaptation but also takes pains to make his lead actor, Amalric, look like himself. Casting Seigner, an accomplished actress who appeared with Amalric in 2007's acclaimed The Diving Bell And the Butterfly, was not entirely a stunt. As is vital for a true two-hander like this, the actors have incredible chemistry together, even while volleying gender power roles back and forth like tennis players. Polanski does a great job teasing out the nuances of the script with a cinematic subtlety that would be beyond most directors, using camera angles, lighting, and some truly inspired sound design to keep interesting a film that takes place entirely in one room.
I am a big advocate of separating the art from the artist, but when an artist inserts himself and his wife so prominently in the artwork, it's hard to ignore the resonances between the real world and fictional. Polanski's personal history of accusations of sexual crimes will no doubt color the way many people receive this film. But Polanski is also the guy who did Chinatown, which puts him on the shortlist of the greatest directors ever, and he's made a challenging, timely, and entertaining movie. You'll have to figure out for yourself where to draw the line.
Venus in Fur
Opens Friday, July 18th
Ridgeway Cinema Grill