Wickedly smart and wickedly playful, Roman Polanski's adaptation of David Ives' Tony-nominated Venus in Fur works on so many levels, it's almost dizzying. A two-character piece about power, perversion, subjugation, seduction, the battle of the sexes, and the relationship between an actress and her director, a director and his star, the play opened Off-Broadway in 2010, moved to Broadway in 2011, and subsequently has been staged all over the place, including a production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company last year.
Polanski's version - translated into French, and starring his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, who bears a striking resemblance to Polanski - opens with a melodramatic sweep of music (Alexandre Desplat can do no wrong), as a camera rolls up to the swinging front doors of a theater and takes us inside.
There's an audition notice taped to the poster of the play about to depart (a musical of Stagecoach), and inside, a wildly frustrated Thomas Novacheck (Amalric) is on the phone, griping about the hopelessness of the casting process. None of the women he's tested for the role of Vanda von Dunajev, a 19th-century consort of icy intelligence and elegance, sprung from the pages of the Austrian novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, has come anywhere close.
Novacheck has adapted this bristling 1870 erotic fantasy, about a woman who agrees to take on a Viennese intellectual as her slave. The term masochism was born from the book and its author's name.
Then, in walks a rain-soaked, mascara-streaked actress, desperately late for her audition - and, at first glance, absolutely wrong for the part. Dressed in streetwalker gear, with a dog collar and a tattoo, she's as far from the character she aspires to play as you, or Novacheck, can imagine.
That her name happens to be Vanda - Vanda Jourdain - is only the first thing to throw the director. By the end of their time together, beginning with Novacheck reluctantly agreeing to let her do the first few pages of the script, he's been thrown around more than a basketball at an NBA game. He's been thrown under the proverbial bus, too.
Seigner's transformation from a seemingly clueless ditz (she misses the point, she muddles the words ambivalence and ambiguity) to a woman of uncanny perception is astonishing. And her Vanda continues to astonish Novacheck. Without laying a hand on him (well, for the first two thirds of the film, anyway), Amalric's haughty artist looks increasingly stunned, as if someone has spun his head around, humiliated him, seduced him, shaken him to his core.
Set, as it is, in a theater, Venus in Fur is also very much about the process of bringing a performance to life. It's about stagecraft, and about the craftiness of (good) actors, about power changing hands - from the playwright to the person assigned to inhabit the role. The film should be required viewing in acting classes.
It should be required viewing in classes about human sexuality, sexual dynamics, psychology, too.
Hell, it should just be required viewing.
Venus in Fur **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Roman Polanski. With Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. In French with subtitles. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.