Roman Polanski cast his wife in the main role and made his leading man look as much like Polanski as possible. As tempting as it is to read autobiographical intention into these decisions, I think it’s probably wise to take them as sardonic jokes.
It’s much better to simply watch “Venus in Fur” as an extended and often hilarious riff on power plays and erotic gamesmanship, both of which are offered here in ripe-flowering abundance.
The movie is adapted from a stage play by David Ives (acted in French for the film), and features just two people on a single set. The conceit is that a stage director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), is caught at the end of a day of auditions by an obnoxious, gum-chewing actress, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner).
He’s casting the lead in an adaptation of the notorious 19th-century novel “Venus in Furs,” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — you know, the guy who put the Masoch into masochism.
By overpowering this diminutive director and flashing her physique, Vanda convinces Thomas to read with her, in an encounter that increasingly muddies the lines between the written material and their own rehearsal process. (The English-speaking movie viewer has an advantage over a theater-goer: The English subtitles are italicized whenever the characters slip into Sacher-Masoch, so things aren’t quite as muddy as they might be.)
We watch this push-me/pull-you dance as it moves around the theater, morphing into something very close to a full-on horror movie by the end. Polanski is a master of limited spaces (recall Catherine Denueve and Mia Farrow in their respective apartments in “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”), so making this two-hander come to sinuous life is no problem. He’s also spent a career observing the ways people tear each other apart, usually by tiny degrees, so the arm-wrestling here is precisely managed.
What’s especially bracing about the movie is how funny it is; even Alexandre Desplat’s entrance and exit music is amusingly bombastic. The humor comes from the movie’s worldly attitude, and the performances.
Amalric (who previously appeared with Seigner in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) is expert at desperation and bluster, and he always appears susceptible to sexual temptation. Seigner, who married Polanski in 1989 and has maintained a busy career of her own, is utterly unleashed and outrageous.
Someone will undoubtedly suggest that Vanda is a misogynistic projection, but the male creators here — novelist, playwright, film director — are instead conspiring to depict how feebly men understand women. Seigner is absolutely in on that plot.
“Venus in Fur” (3 stars)
Roman Polanski directs this two-person study in erotic gamesmanship as a tense but quite funny exercise. In other words, it’s right up the director’s alley, and Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric are worthy combatants, as, respectively, an actress and a director auditioning her. In French, with English subtitles.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for nudity, subject matter