The 2010 play by David Ives, “Venus in Furs,” set in New York City, is about auditioning an actress for an adaptation of the 1870 Austrian novella Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to “masochism.” I think of “masochjism” (and “sadomasochism”) being about pain, but pain is less central than submission/abjection, at least in the 2013 movie in French and set in Paris based on the play that was made by 80-year-old Roman Polanski and starring the film-maker’s wife Emmanuelle Sweigner (The Ninth Gate) as the actress who says her name is Wanda, like the woman (Wanda von Dunayev) recruited by Masoch’s stand-in character, Severin von Kusiemski, to dominate him.
The actress probes how autobiographical adapting the novella was for the writer who is directing his play, Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric). After getting him to read the part of Severin von Kusiemski with her after auditions are supposed to be over, she unleashes the fetishist and would-be slave in him, and eventually, when the play’s Wanda wants to be dominated, gets him into high heels and ties him up.
Throughout the reading, Wanda (the actress) criticizes the sexism of the conception and writing, while Thomas sometimes faults her renditions of his lines, though generally marveling at her understanding of the character and the dynamic of Mascoch’s story.
When Polanski announced he would film Ives’s play, the part of the director was supposed to be played by Louis Garrel. IMHO Garrel is too kinky for the part. I though Amalric was superb (as he often is, e.g., in “A Christmas Tale” from 2008), and he has a great voice. Plus he looks more than a little like a younger Roman Polanski (say around the time he starred in “The Tenant”) while playing a narcissistic director.
The early comedy with the seemingly needy actress gives way to the uncomic needy male, and the end seems rushed to me. None of the other characters, who include three African women and a Greek aristocrat, appear in the movie, which has only the two characters onscreen. I thought Polanslki’s immediately preceding movie, “Carnage” (2011), was funnier, and another adaptation of a play, “Death and the Maiden” (1994), more consequential. Power dynamics and paranoia are certainly Polanlski hallmarks (Cul de Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, The Tenant, The Ghost Writer, etc.)
©2014, 2018, Stephen O. Murray