Venus: One Man’s Trial with a Fatal Attraction

Venus: One Man’s Trial with a Fatal Attraction

Blog PhotoIf waiting until Valentine’s Day for the release of the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey seems like an eternity, Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur may be just the thing to tide you over as it delves into much the same arena as E.L. James’ best-selling novels do, albeit from a distinctly different point of view.  I’d venture to say it’s a far deeper, more intelligent look at the gender roles and power dynamics inherent to a relationship that has sadomasochism as its foundation.  Based on the play by David Ives, the film toys with its audience much in the same way its heroine does with the one under her thumb (or, should it be heel?), and while it’s manipulative, it’s all done with Polanski winking at us, telling us not to take it all too seriously, this is simply one man’s sexual hang-ups playing out before us…and by the way, don’t mess with a strong, confident woman, that would be far more than you can handle.Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is a harried playwright, frustrated with a day of fruitless auditions for the lead role in his new work, the first that he has taken on as director.  His adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Fur calls for an actress with presence and strength in order to fully bring to life the character of Vanda, a domineering woman who manipulates and controls the man in her life, reducing him to little more than a slave willingly bent in order to do her bidding.

Scrambling about the empty theater where it will be staged, trying to pull his things together in order to get home to his fiancée, he’s interrupted by the arrival of Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a flighty actress who stumbles in from a raging storm, claiming that she has an audition and apologizing for being late.  Her name doesn’t appear on Thomas’ call sheet but because of her dogged persistence, he allows her to read for him, a bit taken aback that her name matches that of the role she covets, the first in many odd coincidences that will occur this evening.

Blog PhotoWhat ensues is not so much a case of cat-and-mouse, for that would suggest that Thomas might have stood a chance against Vanda’s wiles but more a bout like Godzilla vs. Bambi.   The actress appears to barely have it together but she knows all of her character’s lines, comes conveniently dressed for the part – that of a late 18th-century European woman, which will change drastically before this is all over – and has keen insights into the character that her creator takes note of so that he might revise the play.  Vanda’s initial insistence that “I’m a reserved type,” is an obvious lie from the start and as she morphs into the embodiment of everything Thomas thinks he desires – muse-temptress-Madonna-whore-dominatrix – after being put in his place, she’s a far more formidable force than he ever imagined.

In a chamber play of this sort, it’s vital that the two principals have not simply chemistry but a deeper connection of trust and sense of anticipation where each other is concerned.  Having worked together before in 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Amalric and Seigner have this and it’s vital to the success of the film.  Both are on a tightrope here, delving into intimate emotions and desires that could never be rendered as accurately as they are here if a sense of safety and trust didn’t exist between them.  Amalric pulls off the impressive feat of making Thomas a sympathetic character, showing the anguish he experiences as a result of being helplessness in the face of his desires. He’s a victim of his own damaged psychology and is to be pitied rather than scorned. 

Blog PhotoAs you would expect, Seigner dominates (sorry…) the screen as she transforms herself into an avenging angel, taking out each offense rendered towards all women on poor Thomas’ form.  Though the actress is 20 years too old (47) for the role as it was originally written, there’s little doubt that she was born to play it.  Her transformation is one of demeanor, her confidence emerging as the play goes on until Vanda is no longer a woman but a force of nature. While there’s no denying the actress is physically attractive, it’s the assurance and strength she projects that makes her sexy. If you don’t find her alluring, well you’re lacking a pulse.

It becomes evident that what we’re seeing has little basis in reality and is really playing out in Thomas’ head, a scenario brought on perhaps by his impending marriage, in which he tries to come to terms with his sexuality.  He’s torn between what society dictates he should do and what he desires, crippled by rigid notions of right and wrong that ultimately inhibit his freedom.  While on the surface, it would seem that Thomas’ trial is, though not unique, uncommon.  However, upon reflection that’s not the case as we all find ourselves slaves to our own minds to one extent or another, giving truth to the notion that in the end, we are indeed our own worst enemy.

Venus in Fur – 3 ½ Stars

Not Rated – 96 minutes

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