Vanda stumbles into the theater from off the street, drenched from a French cloudburst. She curses, stumbles about, pleads. Can’t she get an audition?
Thomas, the adapter/director, has just gotten off the phone, griping to his fiancee that he cannot cast this new play. It needs “a woman.” These days, actresses “sound like 10-year-olds on helium.”
But Vanda, all woman, isn’t who he had in mind. She’s in a bustier, black stockings and leather mini-skirt. The play he’s casting, Venus in Fur, is based on a novel, “not the Lou Reed song.” Her résumé is underwhelming. She doesn’t know what a “divan” (half-sofa) is when directed to it on stage. She’s gauche, snapping her gum as she dives into a huge bag of costumes, makeup, what have you. Vanda is dolled up like this because she was sure this piece was some sort of “S&M thing.”
No, Thomas sputters, losing patience. This is “a great love story, lovers handcuffed at the heart.” Not “S&M porn.”
But the 1870 novel Venus in Furs was by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The author’s last name became the inspiration for the word “masochism.” So maybe she’s on the right track, even if he won’t hear it.
Roman Polanski’s film of David Ives’ play is claustrophobic and theatrical, a chamber piece that’s almost a filmed play. It’s just Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) onstage, doing an overlong audition that toys with issues of directorial control, class conflict and sexism.
It’s a playful riff on the material, starting with the casting. Amalric ( Quantum of Solace) is as close to a French-speaking Polanski look-alike as there is. And Seigner is the director’s wife.
Seigner, who worked with Polanski on Frantic and co-starred in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with Amalric, wears her years in the opening moments. Vanda got her S&M dog collar “from when I was a hooker,” she says. And we can believe it. Unsophisticated, out of her depth, unread, she exhausts Thomas’ sympathy by insisting on donning a costume she dragged with her, on doing vocal exercises before beginning, on dismissing the play that she says her agent just handed her.
“Symbolic?” she wonders, at every odd prop or moment. Especially the fur.
And then she strips off the eyelashes, dabs off some of the lip gloss and transforms. Thomas reads Severin, the male lead role, and is stunned by the fact that she knows his new play by heart. He is exasperated by her efforts to deconstruct the play, to infer that its kinkier moments have their roots in his own past.
And he is captivated. She flirts, teases and tempts him.
“Naked on stage?” she suggests as she starts restaging the play. “For you, no extra charge.”
Polanski plays up the playful side to material that is not as remotely daring as it must have seemed when the novel was new. The camera moves as the characters slip back and forth from the play to their personal “reality” outside of the script. Seigner and Amalric show their own light touches as they slip back and forth, from positions of power to submission.
As slight as Venus is, it’s just titillating enough to matter, just twisted enough — really, casting your wife and a guy who looks like you? — to suggest that even at age 80, even with virtually no budget, Polanski can deliver a compelling walk on the kinky side.
In French and German with English subtitles
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Opens July 25 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth