Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to see the Australian premiere of Venus in Fur in its original form as a production from Queensland Theatre Company. The play easily joined the ranks of my favourite experiences at the theatre, and completely won me over with its winning combination of comedy and drama. So when I heard that Roman Polanski had adapted it to film, I had very high hopes.
Did it deliver? Time to find out.
Venus in Fur tells the story of frazzled writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), who has been unsuccessfully running auditions all day for the lead in his latest play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel titled – you guessed it – Venus in Fur. (You will learn that this book gave us the word ‘masochism’, derived from the author’s surname.) While bemoaning the lack of actresses that fit his vision, in bursts Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) in an energetic whirlwind. On the surface, she’s the antithesis of what Thomas is looking for – vulgar, uneducated, and desperate – but as her impromptu audition progresses, she provides new insight into Sacher-Masoch’s story and the lines between reality and fantasy blur almost seamlessly as Thomas finds the tables turned. It’s a riff on gender roles and dangerous obsessions, and it’s incredibly funny.
Roman Polanski adapted a Broadway hit to film just two years ago with the little seen Carnage, starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly; it shares a lot in common with Venus in Fur as they’re both theatrically written stories essentially set in one room. While Venus in Fur comes off somewhat better than Polanski’s previous endeavour, its biggest problem lies in the fact that the story cannot escape the interior of a theatre. Polanski, co-writing with playwright David Ives, has made exactly two changes to the original text – translating the play from English to French (in the process, losing some of the riotous humour from Vanda’s abrupt transitions in and out of character), and altering the play’s wonderfully bizarre ending into something even more bizarre and slightly less wonderful. It’s not so much an adaptation for a new medium as a filmed version of the stage play. The film also doesn’t quite capture the reality versus fantasy elements that were so excellently played out on stage – is the mysterious Vanda just a product of Thomas’ imagination?
Nevertheless, the film is anchored by fantastic performances from the two leads. Mathieu Amalric is a great fit as exasperated director Thomas, a far cry from the Bond villain that most cinema going audiences will know him as. But the film belongs to Emmanuelle Seigner – Mrs. Polanski – as she effortlessly moves between the roles of the brash, desperate actress and the cunning dominatrix of the play. It’s the role of a lifetime and she pulls it off with gusto.
Ultimately, Venus in Fur is a solid film that succeeds because of its superb source material. The performances are wonderful and it’s shot very well for a film that, bar two shots, doesn’t escape the confines of four theatre walls. If you’re not familiar with the play, you’ll probably have an excellent time with this film. But I couldn’t help but feel that maybe this was something that should have remained on the stage.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Venus in Fur screened as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival earlier this year.