venus

The word “masochism” comes from the last name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer who lived during the 19th century. Masoch’s most famous work is the novella Venus in Fur, about a man who is so enthralled with a woman that he signs a contract to act as her devoted slave. The book has been adapted to the screen and stage in various ways since its original publication in 1870. This film is not another such adaptation. It is an adaptation of a play of the same name by David Ives, who also wrote the screenplay with director Roman Polanski.

The play, also called Venus in Fur, is about playwright Thomas Novachek, who has written and is directing a stage version of the novella. He’s frustrated by his inability to find a good actress for the role of Wanda, the female lead. Just as he’s about to go home after a long day of fruitless auditions, a woman, Vanda Jourdain, bursts into the theater asking to try out. After much prodding, Thomas reluctantly allows her to read some lines, and is astonished to find that she’s not only tremendously talented, but also has uncanny insight into the character, the play, the book, and, it eventually turns out, himself.

This is a two-person play, and it’s even set entirely in a theater. Emanuelle Seigner plays Vanda, and Mathieu Amalric plays Thomas. There are little cinematic touches, like sound effects that play along to the actions the characters mime as they run lines. Vanda pretends to pour coffee, and we hear tinkling liquid. Otherwise, regular shot cutting keeps things feeling lively enough, and the movie is one of the few that hew close to a play that also realize the potential that comes from being able to add a score. The music is invigorating and often playful. This does not feel like a filmed theater production.

But the real joy is watching Seigner and Amalric play off one another. Thomas is, without ever being cognizant of it, slowly being drawn under Vanda’s spell. Only Vanda doesn’t want to seduce him. It’s not clear what it is she does want, or whether she wants anything at all beyond toying with Thomas’ head. As befits a movie based on a play that’s about adapting a book into a play, there are several levels of metatext at work here. The dynamic between director and actress is used to explore the power balance between the genders. At the beginning, Thomas, the director, seems to have all the socially-imbued power he needs. But Vanda deconstructs him as she reconstructs herself, defying every initial impression of her. She hooks her finger into Thomas and unravels him with a coy twirl, just as Wanda from the story of Venus in Fur comes to dominate her partner.

Amalric is mainly in the position to watch Seigner work with his mouth agape, and portray Thomas’s so breakage, and he does so quite well. But the show belongs to Seigner, who struts through every conceivable emotion as Vanda cycles from performance to analysis and then blurs the line between them. Venus in Fur is a terrific film, a 90-minute dynamo of livewire sexuality. It will likely go overlooked this year, but don’t pass up an opportunity to seek it out.